Cross-Domain Network Engagement: Partnering, Engaging and Countering Activities for Human-Machine Networks

Estimated time to read: 9 minutes

In the near future, advanced human-machine collaborative networks will engage friendly, neutral and enemy networks across a spectrum of conflict.

By: Victor R. Morris

The character of war, strategy development and operational level challenges change over time, therefore operational approaches must do the same. Joint Countering Threat Networks (CTN) includes versatile lines of effort to identify, neutralize, disrupt or destroy threat networks. These efforts correspond with engaging diverse networks to reach multinational mission objectives within an overall Network engagement strategy. Network engagement consists of three components: partnering with friendly networks, engaging neutral networks, and Countering Threat Networks (CTN). To successfully engage military and non-military operational systems, more advanced human-machine collaborative networks need to be understood, analyzed and assessed. Modifying joint and multinational doctrine to account for advances in autonomy, narrow artificial intelligence and quantum computing is inevitable. Human-machine teaming has global implications, some of which involve large-scale combat operations.

Systems-of-Systems thinking includes confrontation between systems and destroying the critical functions of an adversary’s operational system. Confrontations are multi-domain and systems are designed based on the campaign. Within operations systems there are human-machine collaborative networks. These networks combine diverse modules across the spectrum of automation through integrated information networks. Some of the modules integrate autonomy and narrow artificial intelligence to accelerate processes, collective understanding and effects. These networks function at the operational level of war and within interrelated diplomatic, information, and economic systems. For example, a Firepower strike system is designed to wage joint combat in the physical domains using various forms of lethal firepower. Battle networks can also be technologically enhanced Anti-access/Area denial (A2/AD) networks designed to present significant joint and combined-arms maneuver challenges to adversaries. The efficacy of these networks and human-machine collaboration across all domains has implications for grand strategic and geopolitical ends.

Where does the spectrum of automation, artificial intelligence, and quantum encryption affect synergy and acceleration of cross-domain systems and networks?

This assessment is guided by the joint components and modifies the US Army Network Engagement (formerly called Attack the Network) construct involving a variety of human and technological capabilities for cross-domain effects in a convergent operational environment. Cross-domain effects are achieved through synchronized capabilities and overmatch in the interconnected human, land, air, sea, space and cyber domains. Dense urban, information and electromagnetic environments are also critical spaces for military and non-military effects. The overall intent is to develop an operational approach that considers how human-machine collaboration accelerates joint and multinational resilience and Network engagement advantages.

Partnering with friendly networks and engaging neutral networks: Multi-domain Battle and Security Cooperation
Multi-domain battle addresses the extended battlefield and large-scale combat through joint reconnaissance, offensive and defensive operations to reach positions of relative advantage. Considerations for seizing the initiative during joint operations involve entry operations, attacking enemy centers of gravity (COGs), SOF-conventional force integration and stability activities. In addition to these considerations, NATO air, ground and naval fires, coupled with effective means of intelligence collection are critical strengths that dominate and enable freedom of action. Stability operations anticipate dense population interactions and are designed to consolidate gains that enable operational and strategic ends.

Defeating the enemy and consolidating gains inherently involves more forces and is an operational headquarters planning requirement. Specific requirements include joint and multinational force assignment, apportionment, contingency and execution sourcing. Additionally, adversary related A2/AD integrated defense systems for territorial defense and protected coercive activities are a joint problem. They require joint capabilities to exploit windows of superiority, freedom of action and gains consolidation to assess the plan.

Equally important for NATO operations and contingency planning is understanding an adversary’s strategy associated with indirect approaches and use of asymmetric proxies to reach objectives. These objectives extend beyond the major joint operation plan and hinge on limited warfare activities and frozen conflicts to interfere with civil authority. Potential dilemmas and operational challenges for NATO involve asymmetric warfare operations in member states against borderless proxy actors, during or after an Article V territorial restoration campaign. These challenges affect the cohesion of complex battle, information, political and economic networks bounded by democratic processes, national rule of law and multinational policies.

Thus, collective defense treaties and joint security cooperation consist of both foreign internal defense and security force assistance to shape and prevent conflict. Foreign internal defense when approved involves combat operations during a state of war, where counteroffensive or counterattacks enable forces to regain the initiative. First, forces may be required to engage hostile elements with offensive operations to return the situation to a level controllable by host nation forces. Secondly, defensive tasks are a counter to the enemy offense, while protection determines which potential threats disrupt operations and then counters or mitigates those threats.. Examples of specific threats include cyberattacks, electronic attack, explosive hazards, improvised weapons, unmanned aerial and ground systems, and weapons of mass destruction. Joint security cooperation and foreign internal defense inherently involve all of Network engagement’s partners to engage and counter activities at the strategic level.

Additionally, world-class intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities should not overshadow critical capabilities and requirements in the human domain. National security services, law enforcement and indigenous populations are critical networks for intelligence development and resilience shaping despite advances in autonomy and machine learning. Sharing intelligence is equally as important and inevitably involves interoperable intelligence functional services and shared databases. The identity layer in the physical domains, and cyberspace comprises biometrics and forensics associated with people and materiel down to the entity level. To adequately ensure that relevant intelligence disciplines are processed and disseminated in a timely manner, multinational counterintelligence (CI), human intelligence (HUMINT), identity intelligence (I2) and cyber-enabled intelligence sharing agreements must be refined and validated down to the tactical level.

Countering Threat Networks: Geopolitical competitors and cross-domain considerations
Geopolitical competitors develop strategies across the continuum of conflict relative to rival advantages and national interests. The resulting strategies emphasizes both direct and indirect approaches across all domains to reach strategic ends. Direct approaches involve deep penetration and maneuver, while indirect approaches are associated with non-military means or use of third party actors to deliver lethal activity. Cross-domain effects are accelerated by hybrid states and non-state actors. Hybrid states are described as states with a mix of autocratic and democratic features. This assessment uses the term “hybrid state” to describe a state that blurs the boundaries between organizations and institutions to develop grand strategy. This type of state also has low competition in elections and low constraints on governmental power. These characteristics facilitate statecraft and unbounded policy to offset perceived disadvantages, deliver key narratives and shape international norms.

Systems-of-Systems contain critical factors that are the critical capabilities, requirements and vulnerabilities associated with interrelated centers of gravity (COGs). A hybrid state’s critical factors are contained in a supra-domain system of systems or “campaign level entities” capable of delivering multi-dimensional military and non-military synchronized attack packages (SAPs). Operational and tactical configurations are like the multi-domain task force concept that consists of operational fires to enable joint force maneuver and objectives. Strategic SAPs correlate to specific target vulnerabilities within instruments of national power. For example, specific vulnerabilities located within geo-economic systems reside in finance, trade, foreign aid and regulation instruments. Geoeconomics refers to the use of economic instruments to manipulate geopolitical objectives. The COGs are the entities that possess distinctive ways to achieve ends. They include 1) conventional joint and irregular proxy forces with integrated air, ground and sea defense networks, 2) emergent and disruptive technological networks and 3) super-empowered individuals, client states and proxy networks. Examples of emergent and disruptive technologies are artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, internet of things consisting of low cost sensors and additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Furthermore, proxy networks present significant challenges for joint and multinational alliances when used as a key component of an unbounded grand strategy. Proxy networks, however, are not limited to non-state paramilitary or insurgent networks. These un-attributable organizations also include convergent terrorist, transnational organized crime and international hacker organizations. Multinational companies, political parties and civic groups also act as proxy networks with access to high-end technologies and geoeconomic capabilities. These networks then either blend and cooperate or compete with other proxy actors based on various motivations. All or some of these groups may be enabled or incentivized by the hybrid state or local population providing sanctuary for them. Additionally, adversaries will also use artificial intelligence networks as proxies to deliver more deniable and innovative attacks. The efficacy of multi-domain networks with human-machine teaming correlates to partnering, engaging and countering activities designed to shape, deter and win.

Cross-Domain Network engagement construct
The below construct modifies the existing elements contained in the Army’s Network Engagement publication to account for joint considerations, interconnected domain, all-source intelligence requirements and inherent human-machine collaborative networks. The interconnected domain is where conventional, asymmetric, criminal and cyber activities occur at the same time in the same spaces with linear and non-linear effects.

  • Understand the joint combat operation model and large-scale ground combat: Joint Operations, US Army Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) updates and Opposing Forces doctrine (TC 7-100 series).
  • Understand the operational environment and cross-domain environmental effects: The convergent operational environment, hybrid competitors and threats, and interrelated institutional considerations. Air Missile Defense and Complex Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield are also requirements.
  • Understand human and data network relationships: Technical enhancement of current networks, new technology enabled operational constructs and integrated multi-domain battle networks with ground-based tactical air defense, electronic warfare, cyberspace and influence capabilities.
  • Organize to simultaneously shape, deter and engage networks: Joint and inter-organizational cooperation and assisted human operations or machine teaming.
  • Engage networks across the continuum of joint operations: Achieve, assess and consolidate more effects and gains than competitor or adversary.
  • Assess enduring activities and effects: Dynamic system resiliency and multi-level shaping activities.

Operational approaches and blended training designed to force multi-national critical factors analysis, decision making and assessments are critical to understanding human and technologically enabled 21st century competition and conflict. The joint operational area must be assessed as one interconnected or extended domain with strategic network configurations. It also must be put in the relevant component context to assess the level of military effort and servicing of targets in domains that enable the land component to reach mission objectives. Additionally, an indirect and non-military approach within a rival hybrid state’s grand strategy offers innovative and inexpensive opportunities to reach geopolitical objectives below the threshold of armed conflict. Furthermore, strategic partnerships and large-scale infrastructure development initiatives enable geoeconomic mutually supporting objectives. Finally, mission command through human-machine teaming and systems integration is inevitable and will undoubtedly leverage human adaptability, automated speed and precision as future critical factors. The global competition for machine intelligence dominance will also become a key element of both the changing character of war and technical threat to strategic stability.

Victor R. Morris is an irregular warfare and threat mitigation instructor at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany. He has conducted partnered training in sixteen European nations, with four NATO centers of excellence, and at the NATO Joint Warfare Center. A civilian contractor and former U.S. Army officer, he has experience in both capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

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