Hyper-Connected Military Needs a Next-Gen Common Operating Picture

By Todd Prouty

iStock photo-illustration

 “The last tactical mile” used to refer to where extensive planning, training, manning and equipping gets put to the test: the austere battlespace where strategies succeed or fail.

Armed with increasingly sophisticated technology and enhanced connectivity, the last tactical mile has become easier for U.S. forces to visualize, communicate through and understand.

Today’s tactical edge is outfitted with data centers’ worth of information and intelligence, and with computing performance that once required warehouses of info-tech machinery.

The modern battlefield is digital and networked. Soon, it will be further advanced by artificial intelligence that enables capabilities we are only just beginning to conceive.

One of the most integral capabilities for troops operating at the tactical edge is the common operating picture — a mechanism for shared, comprehensive situational awareness infused with multi-sourced intelligence, visualized data and streamlined communications. The common operating picture is the theater support that delivers and maintains the decisive advantage. Without the advanced computing capabilities to collect, process and interpret data, the common operating picture that wins multi-domain battles cannot come to fruition.

The technologies that deliver that advanced computing capability will continue to transform over time. The hardware will change shape, the software will evolve and update, and the sources that power their operation will continue to shrink, quiet and refresh.

The government and industry alike are working overtime to resolve the modern-day challenges of the last tactical mile. That means optimizing and expanding computing capacity, quelling the acoustic noise of generators and mechanical equipment, and amplifying the power needed to meet the growing thirst of advancing edge technologies.

In other words, to achieve and maintain multi-domain tactical dominance, hardware and software alike need to scale — and they need to be reliable in any environment, survivable across any terrain, deployable in whatever form factor necessary.

Meanwhile, the technological building blocks to achieve this are already in play.

We can already see efforts coming to life to sustain the overarching goal of informed multi-domain dominance. Joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) is taking shape as a guiding concept to link operations — and connect sensors to shooters — across the services, with experimentation and contract awards underway. The ability to share a machine-speed common operating picture, visualizing data and actionable intelligence, will be central to truly interoperable, joint C2.

JADC2 will comprise several key systems and capabilities. The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, or the “warfighter internet of things,” wrapped key testing last December and proved out the ability to rapidly share data across platforms and services. According to the Air Force, ABMS will use AI and machine learning to connect the joint force by collecting, processing and computing huge amounts of data at machine speed.

The Defense Innovation Unit has sights on a commercial, vehicle-mounted ground station to collect, semi-autonomously process and correlate volumes of satellite and sensor data. The Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) ground station would reduce latency, accelerating the ability to leverage AI and machine learning to disseminate intelligence and bolster JADC2. Most importantly, TITAN must provide these mission-critical capabilities through a modular, open architecture that’s easily interoperable and simple to upgrade and adjust on the fly, even in the most austere settings.

Army Futures Command is aggressively targeting emerging technologies that strengthen deployed networks, information-sharing and communications. The Navy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other defense agencies are all pursuing additional, equally ambitious capabilities to outfit a next-generation joint force.

Such futuristic capabilities are even getting test-driven today in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

These examples and countless others clearly signal sweeping modernization plans across the Defense Department, where investments in space, navigation, electronic warfare — including a new 5G/spectrum strategy — hypersonics, radars, autonomous systems, cloud and AI foot stomp the military-wide push toward increased lethality and dominance.

This unified, multi-domain force of the future will require state-of-the-art technologies, including groundbreaking C2, unparalleled situational awareness and the much-anticipated, all-seeing common operating picture.

At the heart of this fundamental superiority is computing. The ability to assemble, fuse and analyze data from limitless sources, transforming it into actionable intelligence delivered to the tactical edge, requires unprecedented processing power on the move. This will underpin the ubiquitous, joint common operating picture and automated C2 that leaders across the military are relentlessly pursuing.

These capabilities will be how the U.S. military achieves and maintains multi-domain dominance for generations to come. How leaders promote their joint development and implementation today lays the groundwork for tomorrow’s doctrine and tactics. If it’s done right, the U.S. military will be ready for tomorrow’s hyper-connected, hyper-informed tactical edge — shrinking that last tactical mile and ensuring every inch is visible in high resolution. 

Todd Prouty is the business development manager at Crystal Group, a developer of rugged, high-performance computing hardware and technologies.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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