Layered ISR and a Focused Force

By Robbin Laird

If you want to shape an effective focused force with modest capability, for certain you need to operate as a kill web.

I focused on the concept of the kill web in a co-authored book with my colleague Ed Timperlake and then most recently in my book on the coming of maritime autonomous systems.

This is how we discussed the kill web : In 2016, we discussed the kill web approach with  Rear Adm. Manazir both when he was at N-98 and N-9 in Op Nav. With him we discussed the kill web approach as a way to shape more effective integration of forces and convergence of efforts.

The kill chain is a linear concept which is about connecting assets to deliver fire power while the kill web is about distributed operations and the ability of force packages or modular task forces to deliver force dominance in a specific area of interest.

The kill web is about building integration from the ground up so that forces can work seamlessly together through multiple networks, operating at the point of interest.

In that interview, he highlighted the key significance of evolving C2 capabilities to deliver a kill web capability.

“The hierarchical CAOC is an artifact of nearly 16 years of ground war where we had complete air superiority; however, as we build the kill web, we need to be able to make decisions much more rapidly. As such, C2 is ubiquitous across the kill web.

“Where is information being processed? Where is knowledge being gained? Where is the human in the loop? Where can core C2 decisions best be made and what will they look like in the fluid battlespace?

“The key task is to create decision superiority. But what is the best way to achieve that in the fluid battlespace we will continue to operate in? What equipment and what systems allow me to ensure decision superiority?

“We are creating a force for distributed fleet operations. When we say distributed, we mean a fleet that is widely separated geographically, capable of extended reach.

“Importantly, if we have a network that shares vast amounts of information and creates decision superiority in various places, but then gets severed, we still need to be able to fight independently without those networks.

“This requires significant and persistent training with new technologies but also informs us about the types of technologies we need to develop and acquire in the future.

“Additionally, we need to have mission orders in place so that our fleet can operate effectively even when networks are disrupted during combat; able to operate in a modular-force approach with decisions being made at the right level of operations for combat success.”

In the graphic provided by Rear Admiral (Retired) Manazir in the Williams Foundation 2018 Seminar, he took the sequence of find, fix, track, target, engage and assess and highlighted how those functions were now exercised in a distributed integrated manner by the various platforms operating within a task force or in our terms a combat cluster.

This task force, or combat cluster, can be understood either organized organically or scalable and aggregable, and operating as flexible modular task forces. With the distribution of sensors and strike throughout the battlespace, the force operates as a strike and sensing grids to gain combat dominance.

In a presentation to the Williams Foundation, Canberra, Australia on March 22, 2018, Rear Admiral Manazir then retried, provided his graphic representation of how to understand the kill web.

In some ways, the difference can be seen as a shift from a linear kill chain to a distributed kill web. The difference in focus was highlighted in a discussion in 2020 with Cmdr. Peter “Two Times Salvaggio, the head of the new Maritime Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) program at the Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Development Center, at Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

He underscored: We need a paradigm shift: The Navy needs to focus on the left side of the kill chain.

The kill chain is described as find, fix, target, engage and assess. For the U.S. Navy, the weight of effort has been upon target and engage. As “Two Times” puts it: But if you cannot find, fix, or track something, you never get to target.

There is another challenge as well: in a crisis, knowing what to hit and what to avoid is crucial to crisis management. This clearly requires the kind of ISR management skills to inform the appropriate decision makers as well.

The ISR piece is particularly challenging as one operates across a multi-domain battlespace to be able to identify the best ISR information, even if it is not contained within the ISR assets within your organic task force. And the training side of this is very challenging.

That challenge might be put this way: How does one build the skills in the Navy to do what you want to do with regard to managing ISR data and deliver it in the correct but timely manner and how to get the command level to understand the absolute centrality of having such skill sets?

Here we are entering the domain of the kill web. The focus is upon how force packages are configured, and how they are empowered to leverage ISR and fire capabilities at the point of interest, and to both contribute to and leverage capabilities resident in other force packages available to deliver the desired combat or crisis management effect.

At the Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2024, James Lawless, a former Navy officer and now with Northrop Grumman, Australia, focused on how shaping layered ISR capabilities for the ADF by leveraging Triton and autonomous systems could empower the force going forward.

As Lawless underscored, that it is a daunting task to provide for direct defence of Australia given its size, location, and modest military capabilities. He pictured the physical nature of the challenge but seen from the perspective of ISR capabilities which could be used to size the challenge and provide the manoeuvre space for the ADF to maximize their relevant impact as follows:

He argued that by building layers of ISR capability which would work seamlessly with one another, the ADF could best leverage its assets and provide decision makers with options for having the most decisive effect. In other words, ISR is an enabling capability whereby one could winnow down the threat to determine where one needed to act and if possible, with the most decisive effect.

It was a nice to have capability: it is the INDISPENSIBLE capability if one is to have a focused force in reality and not just in terms of a phrase in a government document.

But then how to build this capability in the next three to five years more effectively?

The government is reducing the F-35 force by one squadron which is a major cut driven by the need to raise money for the SSN program when the government has not allocated more money to pay for it.

The major new asset coming to the RAAF is the Triton. This asset is not really understood by many defence analysts and certainly not by the public. It is a high value remotely piloted asset that can operate at high altitude and see over a wide operational area and do so why not having to operate in the weapons engagement zone.

When I visited RAAF Edinbourgh, I was impressed that the RAAF was building a common data floor for P-8s, Triton and the Peregrine. And the plan is to take integrated data and deliver it to mobile operating stations to serve the ADF.

An obvious investment which needs to be made now and capability delivered in the near to mid-term is AI enabled data management and routing to the force packages that need an integrated data stream. This is clearly a key three-to-five year capability which needs to be delivered and not just some day in the imagined world of defence procurement and (here is the killer) “planning”.

James Lawless presenting at the Williams Foundation Seminar April 11, 2024.

But what Lawless did in his presentation was to identify various ways air and maritime autonomous systems could operate to contribute data relevant to the operations of a focused force. Autonomous systems could fill out the areas operating below Triton to move data into the weapons engagement zone as well as to inform operating forces of threats and opportunities in the battle space. They were key capabilities in terms of where on the chessboard to move your combat clusters to maximize their impact.

The Triton RPA and autonomous systems layering provide the ADF with a significant and unique opportunity to help the government build a focused force.

But perhaps, the kill web concept might be thought of what we described as building a honeycomb deployed force when we wrote our book on rethinking military presence in the Pacific.

Rather than thinking of a top-down concept of managing force distribution, we focused on how you build honeycomb “cells” throughout the area of operations which could then be linked. The new technologies for ISR delivered by an RPA like Triton and the various autonomous systems which Lawless discussed can enable clusters of combat forces distributed in the area of interest or act as honeycomb cells so to speak.

In that 2013 book this is how we envisaged the C5ISR service enterprise enabling such an approach for the U.S. working with its allies in the Pacific:

“By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack-and-defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations. Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reachback. By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.

“In effect, what could be established from the U.S. perspective is a plug-in approach rather than a push approach to projecting power. The allies are always forward deployed; the United States does not to attempt to replicate what those allies need to do in their own defense.

“But what the United States can offer is strategic depth to those allies. At the same time if interoperability and interactive sustainability are recognized as a strategic objective of the first order, then the United States can shape a more realistic approach than one that now rests on trying to proliferate power projection platforms, when neither the money nor the numbers are there.

“In effect such an approach would be re-creating a 21st-century version of the big blue blanket. In World War II, especially in the Pacific theater, the concept of a big blue blanket evolved. It took thousands of ships and planes with appropriate logistical support to fight and win. Now with a 21st-century electronic revolution of sensors, shooters, and a honeycomb of networks a modern version of a big blue blanket can be shaped that can enable the fleet.”

We then took the C5ISR point forward into the notion of concepts of operations.

“To shape a 21st-century strategy that can encompass such challenges as dealing with the Chinese colossus, the North Korean stability and nuclear issues, the Arctic opening and the resetting of the Russian role, and providing for security for the maritime trade “highways” requires a remaking of traditional U.S. and allied capabilities and working relationships…

“The strategy is founded on having platform presence. Deploying assets such as USCG assets—for example, the National Security Cutter, USN surface platforms, Aegis, or other surface assets—and sub-surface assets, and having bases forward deployed gives the United States has core assets that if linked together into a scalable force make significant gains in capability possible. Such a persistent presence force must be highly interoperable with allied forces and commercial forces in order to lay down the grid that can allow for a scalable “honeycomb” of deployable capabilities.

“The honeycomb concept is central rather than simply thinking in networking terms. Various U.S. joint or allied forces can operate in an area with great autonomy, but that autonomy is not founded on significant isolation from linkage back to other forces.

“Hence the force is scalable. Scalability is the crucial glue to make such a persistent force possible. The reach from Japan to South Korea to Singapore to Australia is about how allies are reshaping their forces and working toward greater reach and capabilities.

“A scalable structure allows for an economy of force.

“Presence and engagement in various local cells of the honeycomb may well be able to deal with whatever the problem in that vector might be.

“And remembering that in the era of Black Swans, one is not certain where the next “crisis” or “engagement” might be. The author of The Black Swan underscored that the key impediment to learning is that we focus excessively on what we do know and that we tend to focus on the precise. We are not ready for the unexpected. For the author, the rare event equals uncertainty. He argued that the extreme event is the starting point in knowledge, not the reverse.

“The author in the concluding parts of his second edition advocated redundancy as a core capability necessary for the kind of agile response one needs in Black Swan or Gray Swan events. To clarify, a black swan is a large-impact and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. A Gray Swan is a large-impact event that is somewhat predictable but overlooked as major stakeholders in society and globally simply hope to not have to contemplate the consequences of such events.

“The key conclusion here is rather simple: we need to rebuild our forces to be more agile and have more flexible expectations of what engagements we are about to engage in. And shaping plug-and-play capability with allies and partners becomes significantly more important in the period ahead.”[1]

[1] Robbin Laird, Edward Timperlake, and Richard Weitz. Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition, 2013.