Editor’s note: This article is part of the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
After two decades of low-intensity conflict defined by technological overmatch and asymmetric warfare, the US military has adopted a new term of art: JADC2. Joint All-Domain Command and Control is the theoretically simple (and practically complicated) idea of linking everything to everything else, at all times, and using artificial intelligence to achieve information advantage and decision dominance in conflict. Essentially, in concept, all US military sensors would be connected to all shooters and weapons platforms, across all the services, and in all domains to empower decisive victory in a future multi-domain conflict. Despite sounding impressive and promising complete interoperability, there is little evidence that JADC2 can achieve its stated goals, or that the underlying technologies will be resilient in combat. More critically, there is (or should be) concern that JADC2’s drawbacks could make the system more of a liability than an advantage—especially if US military doctrine and strategic planning do not evolve in parallel with the technology’s employment.
The recent publishing of the Pentagon’s “Summary of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) Strategy” was preceded by a steady stream of articles and presentations on JADC2, its proposed suite of capabilities, and an accompanying body of literature rich in vendor materials—a quick internet search returns links to JADC2 marketing sites hosted by the biggest names in defense contracting, like Raytheon and Boeing. Additionally, several military leaders involved in the project have penned op-eds and articles extolling JADC2’s many virtues and the progress being made toward its completion. However, it is difficult to find a thoughtful discussion on the role of security and resiliency in, or their criticality to, JADC2’s ability to deliver on its promises. If JADC2’s implementation and employment are projected to provide accurate, timely, and actionable information to decision makers, what happens if, or when, the system fails? And what will reliance on an integrated, AI-enabled platform designed to improve decision-making do to military thinking and planning across echelons? We can make technology do some pretty amazing things—and we are definitely technology optimists—but, because JADC2 is going to affect the entire defense enterprise, it is also important to consider, and be honest about, its limits. By using examples and lessons learned from the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, we highlight some of JADC2’s underlying assumptions to investigate the challenges posed by an integrated and AI-enabled command-and-control system.
What Happens When Uber Fails?
Traditionally, each military service has developed and maintained its own tactical network, often incompatible with those of the other services. Department of Defense officials make a compelling argument that future conflicts will require quick decisions, and that the era of distinct, service-specific networks is over. Interestingly, DoD offers the rideshare application Uber as an example of the functionality JADC2 is being designed to deliver. By combining the user ride-request application with the driver acceptance application, the two information systems interact seamlessly to generate the most efficient outcome for driver and rider: the fastest and cheapest transportation option to a desired end point, at a desired time and place. While incomplete, the analogy has helped DoD sell the concept of JADC2 to Congress by providing an easy-to-understand example of information integration to achieve a desired end state. However, the comparison between Uber and an integrated military command-and-control system relies on a set of assumptions that DoD has not thoroughly investigated. Namely, what happens when Uber is unavailable (e.g., due to a lack of Uber services in a specific area, an internet or cellular service dead spot or outage, or a dead mobile device battery)?
To access the service, Uber users need a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, and DoD imagines a similar cloud-based environment for the joint force to access JADC2 and its information capabilities. JADC2 will connect the thousands of military sensors spread around the globe into a single system and, with the help of AI-enabled processing, provide a conceptually complete operational picture from any location or command, at any time. However, a lesson learned from the Internet-of-Things explosion is that more interconnected devices are not necessarily better—today, even a networked coffee machine is susceptible to ransomware. As more connection points, devices, and users are added to JADC2’s data cloud, the number of vulnerabilities introduced to the system will also increase. It should be considered that a decentralized system may actually be more secure because it presents an adversary with a more complicated task: access to one system does not mean access to the whole system of systems. Just as Uber is unavailable in a Wi-Fi dead spot or when your phone battery dies, it is dangerous to assume that a single, integrated system will provide better command and control in a contested information environment.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an example of how a single communications system can also be a single point of failure. Viasat provides internet service to people across Europe via the KA-SAT, a telecommunications satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the continent. Just as Russian forces prepared to invade Ukraine on February 24, ground-based modems tied to the KA-SAT network were suddenly rendered useless. Among the affected users were parts of Ukraine’s defense establishment. Since modems are a piece of broadband hardware that are pushed centralized updates, and because officials have stated that the hack did not target the exposed signal in space, the most likely scenario is that the hack was a corrupted modem update—an attack predicted by Ruben Santamarta’s research in 2018.Viktor Zhora, a senior official at Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection, reportedly said that the KA-SAT hack that crippled Ukrainian military communications was “a really huge loss in communications in the very beginning of [the] war.”
What is important about the Viasat hack is its elegance and sophistication—something we should expect from near-peer and peer adversaries in future conflict. Despite being a long-standing technology, satellite internet and communications remain remarkably vulnerable, especially given the distributed ground-based modems and a reliance on a centrally controlled maintenance and update structure—the weakness Russia likely took advantage of. Satellite internet is composed of three integrated components: 1) the satellite in orbit that sends internet signal or “spot beams” to Earth, 2) the satellite dishes located to receive internet signal within regions serviced by the satellite spot beams, and 3) a collection of dispersed earth stations, or modems, that are connected to the internet, and each other, by fiber-optic cables. If the hardware used to connect to internet service is destroyed, internet access will remain unavailable until a new modem is acquired—something particularly difficult to do during a military invasion. Even though attribution to Russia remains tentative, the hack wiped out the Ukrainian military’s ability to communicate just prior to Russia’s invasion, and resulted in Elon Musk’s now-famous tweet: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” What we should learn from the Viasat hack is that modern conflict demands resilient and reliable communications and presently, JADC2’s proposals do not seriously consider the security and resiliency risks inherent to a centralized data and information system.
Should I Trust You?
Two additional assumptions of JADC2 also deserve careful consideration, confidence and flexibility—namely, a user’s confidence in the system and the information it provides and the user’s ability to react to that information in a timely manner. In this context, confidence has a twofold meaning: it is the user’s confidence in knowing how to employ JADC2 effectively and the user’s confidence in the data, algorithms, and connections that JADC2 relies upon to deliver options. Flexibility refers to the ability of an individual (e.g., a decision maker, commander, or service member) to adapt to battlefield conditions and pursue JADC2’s recommended course of action in a dynamic and contested environment. Both assumptions are necessary for JADC2 to be effective, and neither are guaranteed.
During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian communications systems have exhibited a high failure rate, leaving troops to rely on insecure but trusted platforms to communicate. Their cell phone and radio use has enabled Ukrainian intelligence and ground forces to pinpoint Russian locations and to intercept or jam their tactical communications. The Russian experience shows how communications platforms need to be flexible enough to enable warfighting in any condition—when Russia’s inflexible and sensitive modes of communication failed, Russian troops tossed equipment aside for their insecure, but working, cell phones. A single data and information platform—in an ideal world—would provide all decentralized elements and echelons with timely battlefield information to drive tactical operations. But if the platform is not resilient enough to sustain a single hiccup—like the delayed dissemination of encryption keys in Russia’s case—confidence in the technology will immediately decline. Together, these lessons underscore how more technology is not always better. For battlefield technology to be effective, troops need to be skilled in its use and maintenance to enable tactical operations and have confidence that the technology will work for them when needed. If flexibility and confidence are lacking, the technology could prove to be more of a hindrance than an advantage.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
Another assumption is that JADC2 will improve decision-making speed and quality, implying the presence of ongoing command-and-control issues that an integrated system will fix. However, the militaries of our near peers—namely, China and Russia—are characterized by quantity, not quality. Their numbers are staggering, both in terms of personnel and of (mostly older) weapons systems—and these systems are supplemented by a relatively small number of sophisticated platforms, maintained mostly for their deterrent effect. And, as we have seen with Russia’s lackluster performance in Ukraine, these numbers do not always amount to much in a tough fight. Being faster and more skillful than China and Russia is crucial for national security, and to compete with them requires a US military that can innovate and evolve to maintain strategic and tactical advantage. Yet, the technological sophistication and prowess of the US military are not currently in question, and we should be asking if the resources flowing toward JADC2 could be more advantageously focused elsewhere. Ultimately, JADC2 could be a very expensive solution looking for a problem to solve.
The technological overmatch promised by JADC2 also runs the risk of empowering headquarters elements at the expense of the tactical warfighter. An inherent risk of a fully integrated battlefield information system is the potential for tactical micromanagement by command elements that are far removed from the physical battlefield. With the tendency of military leaders to focus on metrics, JADC2 could have a deleterious effect on tactical decision-making, resulting in decision haste to avoid decision delay, or the opposite, decision inertia from having to wait for approvals to filter through multiple levels of command. And there is evidence that senior commanders are already shaping their thinking around a system that has yet to be tested in a strategic conflict—at risk is critical thinking and the potential ceding of human judgment and reason to JADC2-derived options. Similarly, it is unclear what will happen when commanders begin deferring to AI-derived courses of action over the recommendations of the people they command, or the impact that will have on critical-thinking skills across the force. Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that JADC2 will minimize and displace human ingenuity on the battlefield. However, the platform is currently being portrayed as the ultimate solution to conflict and the determining factor in any future war.
Russian communications and equipment debacles, taken at face value, make a solid case for a JADC2-like system, but they also present a major lesson the US military should learn from as it moves toward a centralized command-and-control platform. The real irony of Russia’s performance in Ukraine is that President Vladimir Putin spent much of the last decade modernizing his military, investing billions in new tanks, armor, and weapons while neglecting spare parts, training, and the basic machinery required for extended supply lines. As Russia spent its billions to modernize its military, no one questioned—as often happens in an autocracy—whether allocating that money toward acquiring the newest technology was the best use of those resources. Ultimately, Russia’s latest technology quickly became deadweight on the battlefield because similar investments in training and maintenance were not made too.
You Complete Me, I Think . . .
Another central tenet of the JADC2 concept is the assumption that in great power competition the military needs to be prepared to fight a single, decisive battle. However, history and Cathal Nolan tell us that “victory in battle rarely determines the outcome of war.” A tactical win is not a strategic victory and, even if allowance is made for the supposition that JADC2-derived courses of action will almost always deliver a decisive outcome, JADC2’s theoretical underpinnings could encourage battles with no clear strategic objective. In the end, a decisive outcome absent a strategic goal is a pointless act and further conflates successful battles with strategic victories.
Furthermore, as a concept, JADC2 is designed to achieve decision dominance but, as the system matures, its AI-derived courses of action may not translate to strategic objectives. For example, if casualties or the loss of equipment are too heavily weighted, the algorithm could arrive at a conclusion where the only winning move is to not engage the enemy. Presently, JADC2 is lauded as capable of providing an appropriate solution for any combat scenario, but because algorithms are inscrutable, commanders will have little means or incentive to argue against a JADC2 course of action, which could restrict their freedom of movement or thought. For example, in 1979 and again in 1983, nuclear early-warning systems frantically urged operators to launch missiles in retaliation to what the systems thought were attacks—essentially, in both scenarios the system designed to improve decision-making nearly caused nuclear war. Also important is the recent analysis that found the targeting processes of precision strike missions—even those processes that are mostly manual and subject to multilevel review—still result in numerous cases of civilian casualties and mistaken identities. We should, therefore, be asking if it is correct to assume that JADC2 will produce more accurate outcomes when it will rely on the same intelligence data and information that currently drive operational decisions.
Ultimately, the Ukrainian conflict has been an exposé of Russian hubris and miscalculation. Russia’s false assumption that it could quickly depose the Ukrainian government drove the Russian planning effort. But, Russia’s inability to recover quickly after this plan failed is an example of how a highly centralized and secretive organization has difficulty executing complex operations—in this case, coordinated and synchronized multi-domain operations. Ultimately, over-tech-ing, or adopting technology that is too sophisticated and sensitive to meet the needs of a tactical element, is easy to do. For example, the Army has long sought to build an exoskeleton for its special operations forces. But current research on exoskeleton technology has failed to deliver on the concept’s intended purpose—namely, improving a soldier’s performance and safety on the battlefield. Projects that have pulled together sensors and physical components to create an exoskeleton suit have been bulky, cumbersome, and full of security concerns. Again, over-tech-ing battlefield technology is easy, but delivering the right amount of functionality paired with the flexibility required to shoot, move, and communicate in high-stress combat scenarios is really hard. In the end, the technology simply needs to work on demand because, as Mick Mulroy, a former US DoD official and CIA paramilitary operations officer, said, “If you can’t communicate in the field . . . all you’re doing is camping.”
There Is No Panacea for War, but We Can Make It Less Costly
Retired Admiral James Stavridis recently cautioned that “you can become utterly dependent on a new, glamorous technology, be it cyber, space, artificial intelligence. . . . It’ll enable you. It’ll move you forward. But does it create a potential Achilles’ heel? Often it does.” A related perspective is that soon, “soldiers on the battlefield may depend more on artificial intelligence than their own comrades.” No matter what the future holds, the character of warfare will continue to be changed by technology. And, to be fair, some of the discrete elements of JADC2 are worthy goals, and many of its associated initiatives with cloud computing, sensor deployment, and more advanced weapons platforms will result in better outcomes on the battlefield. However, if we fail to ask the tough questions about JADC2 now, we will continue down a pathway paved in assumptions and a belief that JADC2 will be the critical technology in any future multi-domain battle. Moving forward, emphasis should be simultaneously placed on alternative or complementary initiatives and technologies to improve command and control, bolster security, and establish information resiliency to mitigate the risks of miscalculating JADC2’s potential. Ultimately, a tactical solution at strategic scale, designed to move fast and strike hard, risks being decisive only in its ability to undermine the cognitive functions and human ingenuity necessary to win our future wars.
Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, is a US Army cyber officer currently assigned to the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy where she is a scientific researcher, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences, and an affiliated faculty of the Modern War Institute. She is also the coeditor of this series and director of the Competition in Cyberspace Project.
Jason P. Atwell is the senior intelligence analysis and national security subject matter expert with Mandiant’s Global Intelligence and Advanced Practices business group and is the co-lead for Mandiant’s military veteran and reserve component employee resource group. Jason is also a US Army Reserve officer serving within United States Cyber Command.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez, US Air Force