Vulnerabilities of Multi-Domain Command and Control (Part 2)

By: John Donaldson and Charles Sciarini

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

Editor’s note: The following is the second installment in a 2-part series identifying threats to multi-domain command and control concepts. Part 2 of the series focuses on how a peer adversary may leverage cyber, space, and EW threats against command and control capabilities, and how these effects may be mitigated through the distribution of authorities to smaller teams.

Tactical-Level Resiliency in Contested Environments

In part 1 of this article, the authors described the overarching threats to tactical and strategic communications and how that impacts information sharing. While degradation of communications and datalinks will almost certainly occur against a peer adversary, the probability of degradation escalates as the distance between assets increases and more domains are utilized. This means the Operational C2 through the AOC and CONUS-based intelligence, space, and cyber capabilities will have the least accurate COP and most desynchronized understanding of the current OE. For example, a flight of fighters have direct sensor feeds from their onboard capabilities. The pilots will also likely be able to communicate with each other effectively as they utilize radios and datalinks within relatively close proximity. Communications cross at most two doctrinal domains (air and cyberspace) and utilize a contested electromagnetic operating environment. A cyber-attack or powerful jamming, even against secure, jam-resistant radios and datalinks, could still significantly degrade or sever communications, but it is unlikely. The radio and datalink communications have a high signal-to-noise ratio due to the fighters’ relative proximity to each other, and there are limited vectors for cyber-attack (EMS delivery while fighters are airborne, air gap attacks if the fighters are undergoing maintenance on the ground). Jamming might disrupt voice communications or degrade bandwidth, but it is unlikely to sever communications. So assets working together in a tactical engagement within the air realm will likely retain at least some ability to coordinate with each other and share information.

Up-echelon at the tactical C2 level, the same datalinks and radios are utilized between ground-based or airborne tactical C2 assets (e.g. E-3 AWACS) and the fighters. These assets also have onboard sensors and can leverage the COP for situational awareness or utilize organic capabilities and radios to build an understanding of the OE. As distances between tactical C2 and fighters increase during a mission, friendly radio and datalink signal-to-noise ratios decrease while adversary jamming signal-to-noise increases, meaning less power is required to disrupt or sever communications. However, at some point prior to ingress on a mission, fighters will have sufficient voice communication and bandwidth connectivity for a tactical C2 asset to exercise limited control of these assets or provide them with intelligence updates for situational awareness. Even if the fighters have already started ingress, limited data connectivity may exist between these assets to pass small data packets of critical orders or intelligence, but this communication is not guaranteed. The fighter aircraft must be prepared to execute their mission with little or no direct C2, an extensively augmented operating picture, or the ability easily request cross-domain support.

Reliance on Vulnerable High-Bandwidth Communications

Tactical C2, like the E-3 or a Control and Reporting Center, would coordinate with the AOC, using space-based radio for voice communications while using space or land-based internet enabled communication capabilities to receive and relay data. This adds additional attack vectors for adversaries to disrupt or deny communications. Uplink and downlink jamming against satellites, transmission and reception nodes can interrupt voice and internet enabled communications. Physically, adversaries can degrade or deny communications through antisatellite weapons or attacks on ground-based communications switching stations that support AOC connectivity. Adversaries may also carry out cyber-attacks against the tactical C2’s computer systems, the AOC’s computer systems, and the network architecture enabling the AOC’s satellite and landline communications. Adversaries can use these methods individually or in concert to degrade or deny communications within the AOR between the AOC and its subordinate echelons. Additionally, while the AOC has extensive communications capabilities, it and other operational level nodes typically do not have organic sensors. This means their situational awareness is reliant on effective and accurate outside information and intelligence to build a representative and useful understanding of the air, land, and sea OE. Building an accurate COP that is useful for both tactical and operational levels is complicated, but it is even more complex when incorporating CONUS assets in a contested environment.

The communications links used by the AOC, and other operational C2, to connect with CONUS-based units add complexity compared to theater level communications. These include links that utilize space, cyber, EMS, landline, and sea-lines which are vulnerable to attack from multiple domains at several points in the communications architecture. When relying heavily on CONUS-based intelligence, space, and cyber capabilities, the ability to receive and transmit relevant information while exercising effective control becomes more complicated. Like the AOC, these CONUS-based capabilities have limited organic sensors that directly feed them information about the air, land, and sea OE. Even intelligence assets like the Distributed Common Ground System are reliant on air and space surveillance and reconnaissance assets to provide raw information that is then translated to intelligence. If these data feeds are interrupted or severely degraded, they lose understanding of the air, land, and sea OE, which would limit their ability to provide relevant intelligence to their supported agencies.

The reliance on information from outside sources for a COP makes places like the AOC and CONUS-based cyber, space, and intelligence assets the most reliant on continuous, high-bandwidth communications within the MDC2 construct. It is a possibility that communications remain assured and fully functional against a peer adversary, but it is more likely a competent opponent will degrade one or more domains enough to isolate at least one of these assets in MDC2. The lack of inputs from the external environment will increase friction and entropy in these units with regards to the external environment. This will desynchronize operations against a peer competitor. The resultant lag time between information and communications at the different levels of command will mean that the primary MDC2 agencies and CONUS-based assets will have the most inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the OE within the MDC2 construct, causing ineffective operations if execution relies on direction from these assets.

Distributed Teams Acting with Shared Purpose

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US Army Cyber Protection Brigade soldiers

While effective MDC2 operations relying on assured communications and CONUS-based capabilities may be unlikely against peer competitors that does not mean these assets will not be critical in a conflict against peer adversaries. But operations should not rely on assured communications to centrally control execution across domains from the AOC. Instead air, space, and cyber experts should execute as a distributed team based on commander’s intent and a shared purpose. In Team of Teams, Gen McChrystal highlights the importance of cross organization efforts using both decentralized control and execution, citing research and multiple case studies supporting this approach as an effective means of creating a robust, reactive organization. Organizations achieve this by building relationships at the individual level between different teams within an organization to create shared understanding, instead of attempting centralized direction of a large group of disparate people and missions. However, to work effectively these individuals linking teams should not be placed in a central location like the AOC, where they will be physically separated from their sub-organization, its personnel and its capabilities. Instead, team leaders should execute at the lowest practical level where they can lead their sub-organization but still coordinate with other elements. Additionally, while these teams should leverage synchronization with other domains when possible, they should be able to operate with autonomy, to link and split from operations as the operational situation dictates.

For instance, CONUS-based capabilities may have varying degrees of air domain awareness, but their cyber and space awareness will be greater than the AOC or any airborne asset. They should be able to leverage windows of opportunity in these domains when they become available, so long as it falls underneath the overarching commander’s intent. In the brief, A Discourse of Winning and Losing, Boyd references how the individual at the tactical-level of command and control reacts the most quickly, and the tactical and operational levels must align their decision-making processes so the individual and tactical-level organizations’ decision cycles embed and reinforce the operational level’s decision cycle. Similarly, effective multi-domain operations should focus on the tactical-level of planning and execution within each domain. Leveraging their faster decision cycles to meet mission requirements and commander’s intent instead of relying on extensive control and interaction with higher echelons. Meanwhile, these teams should exploit relative advantages within their domains that allow them to present additional dilemmas to the adversary. This way if communications are ideal, then operational C2 can directly control assets by exception and leverage its accurate COP to guide an overall operational plan. If communications are denied or degraded the tactical-level units can still execute the mission based on limited information and the absence of timely direction from C2 agencies. Then work to exploit relative advantages within their domain to present adversaries with multiple dilemmas despite loss of higher-level guidance and control. Air Force doctrine already acknowledges this concept and encourages empowering lower echelons in the event of degraded or denied communications.

Decentralized Control, Decentralized Execution

This is a similar concept to the operations of a police station and its officers on patrol. The officers go where they are directed by the central office from 911 calls and dedicated patrol routes. However, if the officer sees something wrong, they respond immediately and relay information back to the central office when able. Also, if an officer hears an event that may require back up over the radio, they can react and move or prepare to move toward the problem themselves to provide mutual support prior to direction from their controlling agency. If additional officers are needed they are already reacting and will arrive sooner. If they are not the back-up units can be called off by their C2 agency and return to their previous mission. They are not operating without direction, but neither do they rely on constant direction and updates in order to execute their mission. Ultimately, this article doesn’t recommend the Air Force abandon the MDC2 concept, but the Air Force should acknowledge the inherent limitations of cross-domain operations focused at the AOC against a peer adversary. Operational C2 should still take an active role in planning and execution of multi-domain effects, but the Air Force should seek a force that can continue to execute operations across domains at the tactical-level in the likely event of communications denial. A balance should exist between operational control and tactical execution with a slight emphasis placed on tactical-level initiative in order to enable the fastest possible decision cycle. As such, any future peer focused MDO concept should emphasize individual and tactical-level initiative and the capability to operate in a limited communications environment.

It is not realistic to assume US dominance in the EMS, space, and cyber domains, then require that unchallenged control for an effective C2 architecture. Air, cyber, and space operations should possess the ability to execute decentralized control in order to continue execution in a contested environment against a peer adversary. Tactical-level units would still execute underneath an overall commander’s intent and work within the constructs of an operational and strategic plan, but the experts within separate domains should be postured to execute independently as required. This way they could seek advantages and respond to challenges in order to maximize the number of dilemmas faced by the adversary. Any peer adversary focused multi-domain operations concept should turn away from centralized focus. Instead, the concept should focus on a decentralized approach where individual units and teams work within the overarching commander’s intent and operational plan to create a rapid decision cycle which the enemy will be unable to overcome. This creates a resilient and adaptable force that can execute operations in a future conflict and respond to complex problems in an evolving operational and tactical environment.

Major John Donaldson is an RC-135 Electronic Warfare Officer assigned as an Action Officer on the Joint Staff. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School and the United States Army Command and General Staff College. His previous experience includes Weapons and Tactics assignments at the Squadron and Wing levels, as well as numerous deployments worldwide for Operations INHERENT RESOLVE, ENDURING FREEDOM, and ATLANTIC RESOLVE.

Major Charles Sciarini is an RC-135 Electronic Warfare Officer assigned as a Strategic Policy Fellow to the Joint Staff. He is a graduate and former instructor of the United States Air Force Weapons School. His previous experience includes joint electronic warfare integration at the Weapons School as well as Weapons and Tactics assignments at the Squadron and Wing levels. He deployed numerous times in support of Operations INHERENT RESOLVE, ENDURING FREEDOM as well as flown missions in support of EUCOM, NORTHCOM, and SOUTHCOM.

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 US Government.

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