Best Defense

The future of war (25): You better be ready to fight like it’s a pre-electronic age

The future of war (25): You better be ready to fight like it’s a pre-electronic age

By Capt. Jesse Sloman, USMCR
Best 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 of War before you lose your own comms. If submitting an essay, remember that the contest ends very soon. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please! — no footnotes or recycled war college papers.