Combat Cloud: A High Tech Solution to a Low Tech Problem

“… [F]or all our technology, our leadership simply did not understand what was happening on the ground as thoroughly as the people who were there. The ability to see video footage and hear gunfire from an operation as it unfolded was a tremendous asset, but a commander on the ground can comprehend the complexity of a situation in ways that defy the visual and audible …” ~ GEN Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams

By Katrina Schweiker

Since its birth in the technological revolution that created heavier-than-air flight, the Air Force has been a Service driven by technology. The post-WWII era saw the invention of important technologies that were developed in an attempt to realize the “more humane” promise of airpower, namely to deter aggression or end wars almost as they started. Desert Storm highlighted how lethal and decisive superior technology can be when it is used effectively. Mismatching technology and required effects, however, has proven costly and dangerous to joint operations. For example, jet aircraft were wholly unsuited for the counter-insurgency mission that characterized Vietnam. Gen Aderholt recognized that slower propeller-driven aircraft were better suited for CAS and counter-insurgency missions, but his ideas were marginalized and ignored by a technocratic leadership determined to protect funding for newer aircraft. On the other hand, precision-guided munitions (PGMs) were used very effectively in Desert Storm to shape the battlefield for successful ground operations. History suggests that when technology is used appropriately, it can create a permissive environment to enable the successful completion of joint operational objectives.

The historical lessons learned from both the appropriate and inappropriate use of high-tech tools need to be applied to the development of future technology. The combat cloud, as currently envisioned, is similar in spirit to the technologies discussed above. It offers the allure of real-time access to nearly perfect actionable information and is a purely high-tech solution to a low-tech problem: decision making. Building a common operating picture from data stored in a cloud environment and creating the illusion of the availability of perfect information creates three large risks: joint forces become more vulnerable to Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) attacks and reflexive control strategies; command, control, and execution become increasingly centralized; and an information-denied environment causes decision paralysis.


There is a shift in joint doctrine as leaders from all Services recognize the importance of multi-domain battle and the necessity of actionable data to feed the fight. However, since the increasing proliferation of sensors operating in and around the battlespace currently overwhelms present-day processing capability, attention is shifting toward a concept called the combat cloud. Just as the introduction of heavier-than-air flight changed the conduct of warfare, the proliferation of cyber-related capabilities is poised to change the way we fight in the future. In 2013, Lt Gen (Ret) David Deptula said, “Information-centric, interdependent, and functionally integrated operations are the keys to future military success.” The combat cloud is envisioned as a self-healing, self-forming ISR/strike/maneuver/sustainment complex that links operations across all domains.

To illustrate the power of the combat cloud, a scenario is imagined where rapid information connectivity is vital. When operating within the combat cloud, everyone from Marine ground units to fighter pilots and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots to space operators would have access to the same information. Access to high-quality, high-confidence data is envisioned to allow forces to burn through the Clausewitzian fog of war to execute operations with nearly perfect situational awareness. In order for this access to real-time, low-latency information to occur, the US must have complete dominance in the EMS domain. The combat cloud would use networks to rapidly share data and information across a highly distributed system, much like cloud computing does for industry today. The goal of the information-fusion based warfare enabled by the combat cloud is to fuse all intelligence and data collected by systems that cannot communicate with each other while automating the intelligence processing, exploitation, and dissemination processes to release actionable information. This provides warfighters in every domain access to the same common operating picture. This shared common operating picture is directly fed by real-time battlespace data and would allow US leaders to stay inside the OODA loop of its adversaries.

Vulnerable to Attack

However, potential adversaries, like Russia and China, are growing their abilities to degrade, disrupt, and deny access to the EMS domain, which will render the combat cloud ineffective (level of ineffectiveness scaled to the attack). This should not be taken to mean that there is another purely technological solution that will address this problem. For example, if a ground unit is required to emit in the EMS to transmit data to build their common operating picture, then US adversaries have a higher chance of finding and fixing them. Purely technological solutions also risk creating a joint force that is reliant on information supremacy to make a decision. Two examples of how to mitigate this reliance include ground units training with maps so they can operate in a GPS-denied environment and the Navy training with signal flags and celestial navigation techniques to communicate and maneuver in an EMS-denied environment. The US joint force as a whole must ensure that it continues to train its forces to be comfortable making critical decisions in the absence of all of the data. Perhaps the biggest vulnerability a cloud-like ISR system presents, though, is that it opens the entire joint force up to being a target of a sophisticated information operations (IO) campaign. An adversary with access to the combat cloud can implement reflexive control strategies much more easily than in the current system by manipulating the centralized data and the AI algorithms which interpret it. Until network security is designed as a holistic enterprise within and across all Services and defense contractors, the combat cloud places joint forces at risk.

navy-guyThe US already collects more information each day than it can process, exploit, and disseminate. This data is stored in distributed locations across the Services and our interagency partners. The combat cloud and associated big data analytics create an illusion that the availability of large amounts of centralized, analyzed data is equivalent to information or knowledge. However, creating information and knowledge requires synthesis and interpretation of data in the human domain. It is impossible to predict what will be most important in the mind of a commander at a particular point in time. Big data analytics and machine learning offer a potential solution, with algorithms designed to intuitively provide synthesized information. Using these types of approaches to analyze all of the data being collected can help identify multi-domain, multi-theater opportunities to resolve future conflicts. However, this will only work if we remove the Service/regional stovepipes that currently exist and train the algorithms against a wide swath of the types of questions commanders need answered to make a decision.

Centralizing ISR data onto a cloud-type architecture also increases US vulnerabilities in a future conflict. Even if the architecture is secure from external threats, whenever information is centralized onto a cloud, there is always a risk that it can be taken and exploited by those working within the system. Moreover, a cloud architecture also increases our footprint in the EMS domain, increasing our attack surface in cyberspace. This increases the risk that information presented in the combat cloud could be stolen or corrupted. While the joint force must follow GEN McChrystal’s advice to “share information until you’re afraid it’s illegal” to be successful in future conflicts, that information should still remain secure among the US and its allies. Until defensive cyber and network defense capabilities are improved across the entire national security complex, centralizing information will make it easier for an adversary to access and manipulate it, allowing them to alter our decision-making calculus, position their forces, and conduct effective attacks.

Another challenge the combat cloud must overcome is that most major weapons systems use closed, proprietary networks. For example, tactical aircraft are unable to communicate via datalink to ground forces and CAS platforms are unable to datalink with other tactical aircraft without a relay; likewise, the F-22 and F-35 are each on their own incompatible link architecture. As the operational environment and the EMS domain become increasingly contested, it will be essential that all elements accessing the combat cloud can share information across the enterprise. These secure communication links should not be provided via relays, but rather with flexible plug-and-play architecture that enables maneuvering to different frequencies. The benefit of the combat cloud in a future joint, multi-domain conflict can only be possible if the interoperability among all users is established early in the development process.

Centralized Decision Making

The combat cloud is often seen as the next great evolutionary step on humanity’s quest for perfect information to enable making the “right” decision during a crisis by using timely, accurate, fused data to push a common, highly accurate picture of the battlefield out to all warfighters simultaneously. Developing artificial intelligence (AI) to process the overwhelming amount of data that is already being collected is supposed to enable commanders to make “precise” decisions faster. However, as information has become increasingly easier to collect, there is an insatiable need for more information. Even today, this is evidenced by the emergence of 24/7, world-wide operations conducted by remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). While RPAs have made significant contributions to joint operations, current systems will have reduced utility in the contested operations of high intensity conflict. Furthermore, RPAs allow headquarters to access information that was only available to battlefield commanders, which has led to increasingly centralized decision making.

In small or complicated scenarios, centralization of decision-making can be faster than distributed decision making. As the situation increases in complexity, centralization actually causes the decision-making process to slow down significantly. Military leaders must recognize the natural human tendency to want to hold decision-making authority at their level when they have access and availability to information that they did not have in previous conflicts. If the Services move to adopt the combat cloud, leaders must continue to push appropriate decision-making authority down to the lowest level. We need to trust that the forces that are present in the fight have the training and information to make the best decisions possible.

Operational Paralysis

In current operating environments, where the US and its allies have overmatch in nearly every domain that requires technology to access and exploit, guaranteed access to information has caused decision making to be pushed up to higher levels. Rather than trusting the lowest echelons to make appropriate targeting decisions that are aligned with the rules of engagement and commander’s intent, target engagement authority is pushed up to the highest levels, which often makes it more difficult to deliver timely effects. The current counterinsurgency fight arguably obliges commanders to take into account strategic implications of tactical actions more closely, while major combat operations may not require the same oversight. However, combat cloud increases the likelihood of centralized control. The combination of combat cloud and a well-ingrained pattern of centralized decision-making may put the US at risk due to a severe lack of practice in how to execute mission command. Complicating matters further, the US should anticipate that nations will be able to degrade or deny our access to the EMS in future conflicts. Therefore, we must prepare for the eventuality that adversaries will use transmissions in the EMS to identify and target our forces. The best protection for slow-moving ground forces in this environment will be to not emit, which means they will be cut off from updating the combat cloud. The joint force should also be prepared to lose uninterrupted access to datalinks for communication and intelligence collection. If joint forces are trained to become reliant on high-tech solutions like the combat cloud to either request or make decisions, the US risks losing our major asymmetry: decentralized decision making and execution. The requirement to make the right decision augmented with perfect information risks creating a situation where loss of instantaneous access to near-real-time information destroys the ability or willingness of a commander to make a decision. This leads to operational paralysis. For the US military to remain effective and relevant in the future, Service members at the lowest echelons should continue to be trained to use high-tech methods for fighting in all domains. Just as importantly, the joint force needs to focus on building a shared consciousness, not only through instantaneous access to data, but also by ensuring the purpose of the mission has been effectively communicated through commander’s intent, and then trusting those who are engaged in the fight to make decisions and execute operations in an information-denied environment.

Katrina Schweiker is a Major in the United States Air Force. She is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College and is a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.


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