Distributed Operations, C2 and the Challenges: The Elephants in the Room

By Robbin Laird

Recently, the 17th annual Mobile Deployable Communications Conference was held from the 24th to the 25th of January 2024.

As a NATO article published recently noted about the conference:

On 24 January. 2024, Director of the NATO C2COE, Colonel Mietta Groeneveld, joined the Mobile Deployable Communications Conference in London, stressing the need for rapid adaptation of the Alliance to be well prepared for conducting Multi-Operations. She presented her thoughts during the sessions on Advancing Alliance C2 Capability through a Focus on the Operational Level.

The timely deployment and establishment of the necessary command and control networks are weaknesses faced by all armed forces. Enabling the ability to conduct operations from distributed and dispersed locations through deployable comms advances is crucial. When doing so, we cannot afford to think in national military silos when it comes to this field.

“It will be all about NATO’s adaptability and will require a different approach and cooperation with the commercial industry and civil society. As we move away from platforms towards robotisation, connectivity, (human) decision-making, and data analysis fields will change fast, and demand will be significant across the whole military field. However, there will also be a decrease in traditional (military) communication systems as they are outpaced by commercial technology.”

The core challenges facing C2 operating across a distributed force was discussed throughout the conference.

The presentation by Gp Capt Paul Jennings, Commanding Officer of the Royal Air Force 90 Signals unit, provided a succinct discussion of the challenge. He noted that the past expeditionary warfare was not truly expeditionary. Force was concentrated at a local base for a longer period of time. This will not be the future. We need to deploy at multiple locations at the same time.

To do so will require smaller form factors, meaning smaller size, weight, and power for the C2 units which are able to operate despite the adversary’s efforts to disrupt.

The focus needs to be on information services and not systems.

The requirement is to put capability in the hands of deployed users at the earliest opportunity providing genuine agile delivery of C2 capability to the deployed force.

In effect the conference was focusing on what the US Army’s Chief of Staff underscored last year:

“Our number one priority when it comes to transformation is the network,” the new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George declared in one of his first major speeches since being sworn in.

“Command and control is foundational to how we fight,” and a lot of the systems the Army has today do not support effective command and control, he said at the annual Dwight D. Eisenhower Luncheon held at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., in October.

“The network” has been one of the Army’s top six modernization priorities for the last six years. It was number four on the service’s list behind long-range precision fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle and Future Vertical Lift. George’s statement indicated what is now being commonly called “the Unified Network” is at the forefront of the service’s mind.

The concept calls for seamless connectivity from the foot soldier in the field at the “tactical edge,” to higher echelons and a combat cloud.

Leaders have called the Unified Network the “backbone” that underpins the service’s expansive modernization goals. Its success is not tied to any specific technology, but to the ability to adapt.

The Unified Network concept targets a “centralized delivery of services” in an effort to remove complexity from commands and “let them focus on the warfighting,” Brig. Gen. Denise Brown, director of architecture, operations, networks and space, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-6, said during a panel discussion at the conference.

Brown said the Unified Network underpins the Army’s efforts to transform and reimagine command and control, and is the “capability that delivers the resilient and secure communications to ensure that we have … secure access to our information, and it’s a game changer.”

DESAPRO’s CEO Dominique Schinabeck attended the conference and in a phone interview I conducted while still in Europe, she underscored the high quality of the conference, but noted that there were clearly elephants in the room not discussed.

The first elephant is rather straightforward.

If one is dispersing C2 even in a small form factor, how do you move it to the desired operational location?

Modular, smart logistic concepts are crucial but how do you logistically move the force to the desired location and move it in a timely manner when needed?

In moving equipment to the desired location, there are mostly space constraints, and it is important to be able to optimize the spaces in order to determine how most effectively to move the required C2 and ISR elements.

The second elephant in the room is how to package the evolving equipment package for safe movement to that desired operational location.

A key is to be able to adapt to the smaller form factors of the comms equipment and adapt the sizes of the packaging for the electronics.

In the Jennings presentation he noted that software defined virtual architecture replaces multiple physical boxes (e.g. network components, servers) with multiple software instances hosted on one physical box.

What then are the implications for how to package and how to move across the chessboard of conflict?

As Schinabeck underscored: “This is possible with aluminum case solutions.”

Further insight was provided recently, after my return from Europe whenI interviewed the head of the Command Development Command for the USMC in his office at Quantico, LtGen Heckl.

He underscored that Marine air was the backbone for distributed operations. He noted that logistics is the key element underlying the entire concept of force design.

How do you move the equipment and forces you need to the point of desired operations?

Hence lift, deployable C2 and ISR, and packaging to deliver the necessary combat capability are crucial for a distributed force concept of operations.