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The Digital Battlefield of the Future

C²I² Press Release

By Gerhard Krüger, Technical Director


The way wars are fought is changing. Weapons are becoming more sophisticated and accurate, sensors more advanced and vehicles more stealthy. The armies of the 21st century will not be what they are today. Their weapons will be different; they will have new doctrines; they will move faster; and, probably, they will be smaller in size. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF), to maintain its defensive capability, must change accordingly.

The concepts of command and control originated with the very first battles. We have no record of these ancient skirmishes, other than has come down to us through legend or word of mouth. The first true records of battles and campaigns were kept by Julius Caesar. In his time, the battlefront moved at a footsoldier's pace. Later the horse was harnessed, and the pace accelerated. The First World War was mostly fought along railway lines, but this changed in the Second World War when lines were drawn and redrawn as fast as vehicles could travel. Today we have helicopter-borne troops who can change the battlefield in an even shorter time.

With the increase in speed has come an increase in the volume and rate of battlefield information. Frederick the Great, the celebrated eighteenth-century Prussian king and soldier, is thought to be the first commander to discard his battle gear in favour of elaborate apparel such as silk shirts and fine shoes. He introduced tables and chairs to the battlefield where he consulted his advisers and planned campaigns.

Frederick had a staff of about 60 aides de camp. Were he alive today, he would need a hundred, perhaps a thousand times the number of luitenants to process the vast amount of information gathered during a battle. 

In modern warfare the volume of data generated is so great that humans can no longer assimilate it without the help of sophisticated machines. This has spurred the introduction of computers to the battlefield, initially in the form of ‘embedded processors' such as radar and fire control systems, and more recently in battle information computers.

Previously the battlefield was monitored by sensors and any targets that were identified were communicated verbally to the central control centre. Orders issuing from there, once again, were relayed verbally. Today, it is becoming more difficult – and less desirable – to communicate information to the control centre verbally. Trials conducted in the United States show that digitised data can be transmitted from company to battalion twice as rapidly as voice data. Furthermore, digitised data is accurate 98% of the time, compared to only 22%. Obvious superiority of digitised data has hastened the advent of ‘battlefield digitisation'.

Traditionally command and control is the gathering and dissemination of battlefield information, a process involving various function. In the Sensing stage function is gathered through electro-optic, electromagnetic and electro-acoustic means, as well as through intelligence and situation reports. In the Process and Compare functions, data is transformed into information. This is done firstly by collating (or ‘packaging') related data into attributes of an object. Thereafter data is transformed into information by comparing the ‘packets' to packets from other sources such as sensors and/or current or historical databases. In the Decide function information is transformed into knowledge, and it is this that gives the commander the battlefield advantage.

Orders given by the commander provoke a reaction (or reactions) on the part of the enemy. These are monitored and entered into the system. The process then repeats itself until an outcome is achieved.

Messages containing either raw data or processed information are transferred between the various functions. Attempts to transfer all data to the commander would cause undue strain on technical and human resources. To prevent this, data must be prioritised and the most critical information awarded preference.

It is clear from the above that the modern battlespace requires both ‘vertical' and ‘horizontal' integration. Vertical integration is needed to provide reliable lines of command and control between fire units and command centres (which may be static or semi-mobile). However, vertical lines of command and control, on their own, provide only limited responsiveness. Furthermore they are only partially able to prevent fratricide because they lack information about the existence and positions of friendly forces. In the future battlespace, where a soldier could die within minutes of being detected by the enemy, action will be required as rapidly as possible. This is why, beyond the traditional vertical flow of information, horizontal information flow between operational units will be required.

Information will be transferred between different units of the force, who will use the information to enhance their own decisions and actions, shortening the time from detection to action. In addition, information will be consolidated and presented to the commander in a graphical, easily digestible manner to aide decision making. For this purpose man- machine interfaces (MMIs) will utilise multimedia, hypermedia, simulation, animation, multidimensionality and other advanced technologies to visualise the battlespace in a realistic way. Computers running decision support programs will be on hand to provide additional expert input.

The forces of the 21st century will encounter more sophisticated threats than those with which common today. Future battles will start with aerial weapons such as cruise missiles, aircraft releasing toss-bombs at stand-off distances of 8 - 10 high-energy/high-electro-magnetic pulse bombs, laser-guided precision bombs, self-homing bombs and so on. Once the opponent's morale is broken, ground forces will move in.

To reduce their exposure, forces will rely on mobility and manoeuvrability. The traditional role of remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will change from reconnaissance to high-altitude communication relay platforms and even to more aggressive weapons-carrying platforms. The sensor/weapon vehicle of the future will consist of optical and radar sensors with guns and/or missiles. It will have the capability to fire on the move. 

Command headquarters (CHQ) will be formed for hours or, at most, days. The CHQwill consist of a fleet of independent vehicles equipped with multifunction consoles to help the commander make decisions. The consoles will be linked by local area network (LAN) within each vehicle and between groups of vehicles. When the CHQ is on the move, the inter-vehicle connection will be via mobile LAN implemented by means of digital radio. When the vehicles stop to form a temporary CHQ, they will be connected by a physical LAN providing better bandwidth and security.

In the new millennium, technology alone will not ensure a force's survival. There must also be a change of doctrine, as the doctrine employed by an armed force will influence the technology required (and vice versa). A doctrine that allows autonomy at all levels of the force will result in the least amount of traffic on communication networks. It will also be less vulnerable to electronic warfare such as jamming and detection.

The trend world-wide is to integrate the operations of all the services of a country's defence force into a joint operations task force. It is vital that South Africa should follow suit. A plan must be formulated to plan and manage the research and development efforts required by industry for the SANDF to achieve the goal of battlespace digitisation. Ideally, planning should be done by a joint task group representing all services and disciplines of the SANDF.

If the SANDF decides to embark on battlefield digitisation, an evolutionary procurement philosophy should be followed. Systems should be specified as fully as possible, but procurement should follow an "acquire, integrate, use, acquire more, integrate, ..." policy. The alternative, a "big bang" acquisition policy, could result in extremely long lead times with no guarantee that the systems will fit the requirements or the prevailing doctrine, or that the technology employed will still be current.