Dr. Thompson is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, is a member of the Submarine League and a frequent contributor to the REVIEW.
In the October 1993 SUBMARINE REVIEW Rear Admiral Holland, USN(Ret.} gave a very succinct and realistic exposition of the importance of C4I (command, control, communications, computation and intelligence} to the Submarine Force, and the need for hardware and doctrine development to optimize its employment in our current era of joint littoral warfare. There seems little doubt that, for the near term at least, Admiral Holland is correct in all respects. For the longer term, however, there may be some significant contra-indications to expanding the resources devoted to C4I, both for the Submarine Force and the armed forces as a whole.
At the moment, there seems no doubt that the large sums devoted to expanding and refining the C4I capabilities of all our armed forces paid enormous dividends in the Gulf War. We had excellent tactical intelligence regarding the Iraqi force dispositions. The Command and control of our forces, due in part to secure, anti-jam communications and the widespread availability of handheld GPS, was overtly superior. While U.S. weapons systems were better and in some cases, decisively better, it is not too much to say that our overwhelming superiority in C41 at all levels was the biggest factor in the Gulf victory.
There is equally little question that we should continue to emphasize C41 in our forces, at least for the near term. As Admiral Holland has pointed out; in near future conflicts we will be likely operating against unsophisticated forces unable to target our C41 systems. Their ability to jam, intercept, or decrypt our communications wiil be modest at best. Their ability to prevent or spoof our intelligence collection systems will also be minima). Conversely, their C41 arrangements are likely to be an open book: the success of the Gulf War is due in no small measure to the fact that the Iraqi forces were basically rendered blind, deaf and dumb shortly after the assault began. In fact, most armed forces we are likely to face have a rudimentary C4I capability at best. In some sense this works against us, since a ragtag army may not offer high value C41 targets, and may not be particularly hurt as a result of decapitation. A good example is the very decentralized Viet Cong command structure which proved so difficult to fight in Vietnam. We may find ourselves with million dollar weapons and nothing that valuable to fire them at.
Moreover, we should dance with the one that brung us in emphasizing C41 as one of our strengths. Our computer, radar, space and guidance technologies lead the world, and we would be foolish if we did not take advantage of these strengths in our weapons, C41 systems and doctrine. It is an axiom of strategy to fight when possible in terrain and conditions which favor you, and not your opponent. For us, this means under circumstances which favor our dominance in C41: at sea, in the air, in space, in darkness and in open country. Our edge is significantly reduced in built-up areas, in forests, in mountains, or when the weather is bad enough to hamper air operations. The corollary is that our opponents (if they’re smarter than Saddam) will seek to fight us under conditions which favor them. Over the last few years we’ve given lots of thought to fighting jointly in the littoral region, but an opponent with enough room may cede the littoral in order to fight us in more favorable terrain. Some U.S. ground forces are currently training for operations in built-up areas, in the expectation that this is where opponents will choose to fight. We can anticipate that prudent opponents will conduct maritime operations with a view to avoiding the long reach of the Submarine Force and its weapons.
Finally, today it is politically more necessary than ever to have measured responses to crises, where visibly overwhelming forces may be considered by the media as threatening and destabilizing rather than deterring. This is also a view often held by politicians. It was surprising and anomalous that CINCCENT was ultimately given as large a force as he needed, including an armored corps from Europe, in the Gulf War. It is more likely in the future that the joint forces commander will be given a minimum force, so he will need to get the maximum efficiency from it, using his C41 systems.
Yet particularly in the long term, there are some significant drawbacks to putting so many of our eggs in the C41 basket. Perhaps first and foremost, lots of people learned lessons from the Gulf War besides ourselves, and we can rely on future opponents to fight smarter than Saddam did. As more sophisticate opponents emerge in the coming decades, they will recognize that C41 is an important and integral part of our warfighting doctrine, and therefore useful to target. Recent top level concern about domestic attack on DoD and infrastructure computers by hacker/ terrorists recognizes only the tip of the iceberg. For instance, many satellite control and tracking facilities are soft, immobile installations which might readily be targets for special forces or terrorist-type groups, even using improvised munitions. How many sites would need to be destroyed before overseas communications were significantly degraded? We note that this danger has been recognized and steps have been taken to make newer systems more secure in this respect, but clearly such factors must be taken into consideration when implementing C41 systems of all kinds.
At the moment, no likely enemy can target most of our C41 systems effectively, but the basic technology of most C41 systems has proliferated widely because much of it is dual-use. The most obvious examples are computers and high frequency communications equipment, because their utility is very evident. While of course technology is always changing, one can be confident that if a technology has any non-military use at all, it will be difficult to control its export. The manufacturers want to export to broaden their market, the Commerce Department wants to export because this makes friends for the Administration amongst the defense contractors, and the State Department wants to export because it (presumably) makes other countries love us. Against this team, often defense considerations take a back seat. Thus we can expect the means to intercept, jam, spoof, and even decrypt our C41 systems will also proliferate. Some years ago the People’s Republic of China announced that it was going to devote increased effort and resources to developing computer, optical, space and bio technologies. While there are obviously sound economic reasons for doing this, it is hardly coincidental that most of these technologies have important military applications as well. We can expect that opponents will develop a capability to target our C41 systems for much less effort, time, and money than developing overtly military technology such as nuclear weapons or submarines.
There are other reasons for concern. C41 systems have grown steadily in capability over the last 20 years, but so has their complexity and cost. An increasing fraction of platform weight, power consumption, space, cooling and cost are taken up by C41 systems. The individual systems are enormously more capable than their predecessors, but there seem to be more of them. As computing power, or more precisely, density has increased, C41 has also gotten more computation-intensive. The problem is that computation-intensive has also meant software-intensive. Despite very active efforts at automation of software generation, this remains a bottleneck in new systems development. Writing and debugging a million lines of code is a significant fraction of the cost and development time of new systems. For example, a nontrivial portion of the development costs included in the $300+ M price of the McDonnell-Douglas C-17 is the huge amount of code its computers require. Moreover, software is a large part of most system upgrades, and represents a vexing problem in maintenance, repair, interoperability and compatibility. The software upgrade to an existing system which has some unexpected effects or even causes the system to crash is almost a click. The engineers work hard to address these issues, but we court disaster by not keeping things simple.
The corollary to using C41 systems more is that they are more vulnerable to intercept and decryption. While it is implausible that any of our current adversaries have the capability to intercept and decrypt our communications, this may not always be so. First, it has been true for centuries and may be taken as axiomatic that the more communications traffic you can intercept, the easier it is to decrypt. It may not be possible for an adversary to succeed in decrypting the traffic with tactically useful speed, but it is easier. To be sure, a major thrust of communications system development has been increasing bandwidth, with the development of EHF, SHF and lightwave communications. While these higher frequency signals are harder to intercept, they also represent more volume, which from a decryption standpoint is simply more grist for the mill. The volume of our communications has gone up. While a submarine up until recently might have received only a few hundred bytes of data per day (and not transmitted at all), a submarine participating in a joint force operation might transmit that much just acknowledging the JTF commander’s message. Admiral Holland’s prophecy of the National Command Authority expecting real time video of the periscope view doesn’t seem farfetched in the least. Yet one video picture is at least a hundred thousand bytes of information: by itself, it is equal to a month’s communications from a submarine 15 years ago. Full motion video is 30 of those pictures a second, and because each frame is so similar to the last (the basis of compression schemes), one is effectively retransmitting the same message 30 times per second, which makes deciphering significantly easier. One wonders how many bytes a surface vessel, or a flagship, transmits. As we get increasingly joint, moreover, the number of nodes increases, and even without decryption traffic analysis can tell an enemy a lot. The decimation of the German submarine force in World War II aided by direction finding and encryption has sensitized our submariners to the risks of communicating; it may behoove the rest of our forces to consider how each byte they transmit contributes to putting enemy ordnance on target. All of this is not to say that a lot of effort has not be expended in making our communications as secure as possible; rather, it is just to point out that the more we talk, the more it is worthwhile for any enemy to listen.
A third issue in the expansion of C41 capabilities is the human factor. Admiral Holland bas already touched upon some of the risks inherent in enhanced connectivity: people with diverse backgrounds being brought into the loop, armchair quarterbacking, and .rules of engagement reduced to calling the White House and waiting to see what a teenage staffer thinks will play in Poughkeepsie. Moreover, the availability of communications increases the demand for more. A National Command Authority grown accustomed to real time video (and having grown up in the TV era) will not sit still waiting for updates and situation reports.
Two other problems are the lengthening of the chain of command, and rigidifying our operations. Recent experience in Lebanon has shown that given good connectivity, we will make the chain of command excessively long. In that situation, great pride was taken in the fact that a request was bucked up from Lebanon, through Italy, through London, to Washington, and a response returned within a day. Passing operational directives through so many bands is clearly absurd, and such unwieldy chains of command are clearly infeasible without good communications. The very successful counterexample of chain of command is the Submarine Force, whose operational chain of command until recently consisted of the fleet Commander, the Type Commander, and the ship’s CO. Moreover, the U.S. Submarine Force evolved a practice of selecting commanding officers with great care and then giving them substantial independence in carrying out their orders. The emphasis on initiative in commanders in all U.S. armed forces has widely been viewed as a strength, particularly in comparison to the armed forces of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact with their very tight central control. Greater communications volume is likely to result in a decrease of initiative in all our armed forces.
A final issue in increased communications is signal-to-noise ratio. As the volume of communication and intelligence goes up, the fraction that is really useful and timely is likely to decrease. Pilots of attack aircraft about to bomb North Vietnam often turned off their radar warning receivers, or more particularly the associated alarms. They did this because the alarms provided no useful information, but were a distraction; the only relevant information was a visual sighting of the surface-to-air missile in time to avoid it. As the volume of communications traffic goes up, bow much will be signal and bow much will be noise? Admiral Holland points out that there are some forces with evidently little need to talk to one another, but the communications systems will likely permit them to talk, because it’s logistically much easier and mandated by joint forces doctrine to give all commands similar communications capability. I would suggest that in the joint world especially, the volume of communications will go up, the fraction of relevant messages will go down, and communications will be viewed as more of a burden and less of an asset by the warriors.
Ultimately, we must answer some questions when we consider the real value added of each new C41 system: is the cost in weight, size, dollars, maintenance, training, watchstanders, and power really worth it in terms of warfighting capability? Will an intelligence system really provide timely, useful information, or just provide reams of data of no use? On the other hand, have we come to rely on a particular system so much that we would be crippled without it? Does having or using these systems increase our vulnerability to countermeasures, jamming, or interception and decryption? How much degradation of our C41 systems can we accept? Finally, how much should we train under scenarios where we have inadequate C41, or our opponents can decrypt some fraction of our communications? These are questions which are relevant now, because platform lifetimes are now measured in decades. We may find that, in the future, the Silent Service must become silent once again to remain effective.