ORLANDO: Want to defeat an enemy? Get inside his decision cycle. Hammer away at his forces, confuse his command, steal his intelligence. Sun Tzu said most of it ages ago, but it remains true today. The key to such success is, first, understanding what you and the enemy are doing and, second, communicating that understanding to all your forces at great speed and with high certainty it is accurate. That’s why the Air Force is trying to figure out whether and how to build what it’s calling a Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) system.
This will be an Air Force-wide system, one that takes into account the standards and needs of the Air Force, the three other armed services, our allies and partners, says the man leading the effort. Jack Blackhurst, director of the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SPDE) Office, is the man behind this and other studies into other major capability gaps faced by the Air Force.
As we reported last week, the SPDE is led by Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the commander of Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson AFB. It reports directly to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who has publicly enthused about “multi-domain” operations in which air, space, cyber, sea, and land-power all work together as a single seamless force.
“The Air Force wants to create an effect with the adversary’s air, space and cyber assets,” Blackhurst says. The goal is for “the commander to understand his situational awareness. He knows what assets he has in the zone of control — everything from space to undersea — and can act quickly.” This is designed in the long run — and we’re probably talking 2030 before we see a finished system — to meet the challenge of what every senior officer I’ve spoken with says is the top Pentagon effort to cope with the incredibly complex world we face, what’s known as multi-domain warfare. The Army’s been most public of the services with wargaming its version of the concept, Multi-Domain Battle, and Blackhurst confirmed Army officers were part of his team.
Those assets in the zone of control that Blackhurst mentioned will, almost always, include the forces of allies and partners. So how important are allies to the new effort to build a communications system that can bridge domains? British officers head two of the eight groups leading the SDPE effort, says Blackhurst. Which ones? Force development and, unsurprisingly, interoperability. Imagine what it means that a completely new system like this is being influenced from the very beginning by military officers from another country.
One of the keys to this system will be its data backbone. The current one, known as the Distributed Common Ground System, needs to be substantially modified to cope with the huge quantities and disparate types of data that will be needed, Blackhurst told me. In particular, how information is translated and displayed on a screen is absolutely critical: Data is no good if human eyes can’t see it and human brains can’t wrap around it. “You need quality information that people can see on a screen,” he says. And it will have to be shared more broadly — “distributed” — than currently happens. It probably means there will be a miniaturized version of the current theater-level Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC).
Also key to this system will be the balance between humans, autonomous artificial intelligence, and machine to machine communication. “What we want to get to is to let the human do what they do well and let the machines do what they do well,” the SPDE chief says. The autonomous system will not be allowed to make a combat decision, although that line may get blurry when it comes to cyber and electronic warfare, given the need for incredibly fast reactions. The system, he says, will probably offer options to a commander because the service “always” wants a human in the decision loop.
Some 52 companies are coming back to the SPDE this month to advise them on technologies they think can help MDC2 come to fruition. But the technology will get scrubbed. The SPDE will perform modeling and do simulations. Then they will go to Goldfein and recommend an approach. “What the chief really wants is for us to come to him and give him hard data about what works,” says Blackhurst. Goldfein has stood up an Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team, led by Brig. Gen. Chance Saltzman, to examine the best ways to actually build build MDC2.