Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army.

Summer Essay Campaign #3: “Big Data and War”

To Answer Question #4: “How does information (Big Data and YouTube) affect the conduct of war?”

By Major Dan Sukman

With the proliferation of modern technology, and the rise of social media sites such as youtube, facebook, instagram and twitter, Soldiers on the modern battlefield will find themselves operating in a persistent information environment.  Essentially, every action on the battlefield has a probability of reaching audiences across the globe in a matter of seconds.  The effects of a persistent operating environment are profound; they will change how both our adversaries operate and how the U.S. joint force operates.

Adversaries will take advantage of the persistent operating environment by leveraging “big data” to eliminate any possibility of strategic surprise the United States seeks to gain in movement of forces across the globe.  Adversaries will have the capability to link together a wide variety of remote sensing capabilities and develop a much more robust ability for early detection, identification and tracking of U.S. forces.  In essence, adversaries will have the capacity to conduct real-time monitoring and reporting of joint force movements.  Historical advantages of stealth and initiative employed by U.S. commanders will be increasingly difficult to attain.

The past two decades has seen the United States employ a global ISR network through the use of multiple platforms in all domains (space, cyberspace, air, maritime, and land).  As adversaries gain access to less expensive and more common networking, communications, and analysis techniques, including the capture, storage, and analysis of very large data sets the freedom of action derived from our ISR advantages may become more limited.

When it comes to the actions of U.S. forces engaged in combat, “big data” will enforce tighter Rules of Engagement across the battlefield.  In addition, the proliferation of modern technology and the ability for those on the battlefield to instantaneously show the world the effects of modern war will drive acquisition of more precision guided munitions to limit collateral damage in a war zone.  The authority to employ such weapons and munitions will require a higher level of approval due to possibilities of inaccurate intelligence and targeting, the results of which can be shown to the world in a matter of seconds.

The ethical conduct of the joint force will be challenged across the battlefield.  We have seen the results of “big data” over the past 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Digital photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the photos of Marines pissing on the bodies of dead Taliban are two notable examples.  Just as police officers use dash-cams to ensure an accurate account of activities at a traffic stop, the Joint Force should embrace a similar concept.  This would not only ensure a check on U.S. conduct, but provide the capability to show the world the actions of our adversaries.

The Joint Force will need to embrace the likelihood of a persistent information environment.  It will require service members who are adept at social networking and modern technology systems.  It will require commanders, who under the premise of mission command trust that their subordinates will take advantage of these capabilities and not limit their use out of fear of violating OPSEC, or out of fear that their subordinates will act unethically.