It is often incorrectly assumed that 5th generation fighters like the F-22, F-35, Sukhoi Su-57 and Chengdu J-20, are merely upgrades, compared to existing aircraft like the F-16 and Typhoon, which bring improvements to the performance and capabilities of these new aircraft. However, the sophisticated sensor and communication systems, deployed in fifth-generation aircraft have ushered in a change in the management of the Battlespace. Today the operational environment focuses on the primacy of information superiority, which General Wilson, vice chief of the USAF calls the “new dogma”, an aircraft like the F-35 is therefore only one node in an extensive communications network.
The key is information collection and distribution, with data being used to generate shared awareness stop manned and unmanned systems are therefore just different types of nodes within this network. A “Combat Cloud”, consist of interdependent, functionally integrated systems, enabling data-sharing across the entire network; such a network is orders of magnitude more complex and integrated than previous communication systems. As has been said, as a fighter aircraft the F-35 is not significantly better than the F-16, the difference lies in its integration with the Combat Cloud. In this system network nodes on any platform that can deploy sensors and communicate sensor data to the network. In addition to manned aircraft, unmanned UAVs form key nodes within this network. Satellites are also an important source of sensor information, and are therefore to be regarded as network nodes.
The Combat Cloud is not limited to the aerial or space environment, it is equally applicable to naval and land operations, in addition to providing communications down to the fighting unit, we are also seeing the introduction of advanced analytics, often called artificial intelligence, into the management of information and the decision-making process.
While the opportunities presented by this technology are exciting, and can transform military operations, there are potential weaknesses in the Combat Cloud concept. The first concern must be for the resilience and capability of communications systems, communications problems have been bedevilled the deployment of UAVs, and in some cases available bandwidth has been so restricted that other key systems, such as radar, have had to be switched off in order to allow sufficient bandwidth for UAV operations. As the Combat Cloud becomes the primary war fighting environment, issues relating to communications must be addressed as a matter of great urgency. In the case of UAVs communications signals from the ground, to and from the UAV, can be blanked out by the earth’s curvature, especially if the UAVs are employed at low altitudes.
The second major issue with reliance on a fully integrated communications system, is the potential vulnerability of the system to cyber threats, ESM/ESP which the Russians have been particularly good at, and the deployment of EMP weapons, which can destroy integrated circuits over large areas, unless they are protected within a Faraday cage.
In designing the Combat Cloud concept the possibilities of using the unique abilities of balloons, aerostats and long endurance aircraft, are often have been overlooked. A wide range of sophisticated sensors, from long-range radar, to Lidar, networked sonar-buoys, and cameras, deployed on a number of different platforms are key components of the Combat Cloud, while they may not be as attractive to generals as fast fighter jets, they are quite as important.
Network Centric Warfare is about deploying a cohesive, coherent network, extending across all domains and links all combat arms, and allies. In the modern Battlespace TIME is becoming the key element which will mean the difference between success and failure; that is the speed with which threats are identified and targeted, the speed with which decisions are made, the speed with which our systems learn from new information, and the speed with which actionable information is distributed across the Battlespace to all coalition participants.
© Andrew Palmer, 2017, please do not copy without permission.