The pace of technological innovation overwhelms the ability to field battlespace-ready integrated systems. There is wide spread recognition that change is needed but little agreement on the way forward.

We must reframe the problem to ensure that the information technology foundations for C4ISR are an enabler, not a roadblock, for the 5th Generation Force the ADF is acquiring. As the ADF moves towards the 5th Generation (Gen) Force, we must ask whether it can do so successfully using the existing information technology approach.

This article attempts to address two key questions, focusing on the perceived needs of the ADF. Firstly, is the current approach of considering platforms, silos and systems before interoperability still valid? Secondly, is the focus on information advantage, data and networks providing the ADF with the necessary conceptual tools? The danger is that the wrong choice makes the pace of change overwhelming, placing the aspiration for the 5th Gen Force at risk.

The aim is not only to identify the problem but also to demonstrate that effective, sound solutions are possible and able to deliver joint effects. Going back to first principles and considering what matters is an approach to gain insights into the characteristics of a contemporary battlespace; to understand how the need for agile command and control has become an essential design requirement, and how stability and innovation should be simultaneously embraced.

From the results of this analysis the two central design concepts for the 5th Gen Force foundations are the ability to marshal action to deliver joint effects, and, effective communication throughout the battlespace.

I have called the system for marshalling and action throughout the battlespace the Fabric (FABRIC) and the system for communications the Resilient Communications Network (RESCOM). Together they form, for reasons discussed later, the 5th Gen Agency Management Framework (AMF).

The AMF is intended to work throughout the global fixed and deployed space, and across coalition and other partners, to support the depth and diversity of the 5th Gen Force. As the thinking behind RESCOM is more advanced, evidenced by tools such as software-definable networks, the of this article is primarily on FABRIC.

This new paradigm proposes an inversion of the current approach, transforming our understanding of how to conceptualise and build ICT foundations. This transformation must be acted upon. To fail, I believe, puts the future 5th Gen Force at significant risk.

In their ADM article, The 5th Generation Information Management Environment: Enabler or Roadblock, John Blackburn and Ian McDonald argue that 5th Gen warfare requires a new approach in both technology and operations. The 5th Gen Force is not just about platforms, such as the F-35A but about the need to transform the broader ADF into an integrated networked force.

Mature 5th Gen forces will incorporate sensor proliferation across all imaginable spectra, exponential growth in data generation, data fusion analytics and integrated artificial intelligence. Blackburn and McDonald concluded that the ADF is acquiring 5th Gen platforms and systems which run the risk of being shackled to outdated communications and information network architectures.

They called for the ADF to rethink, to develop a future concept of operations for the 5th Gen Information Management Environment (IME) which fully realises and exploits the implications of the 5th Gen Force. An enabler, not a roadblock, for the future.

At recent defence industry forums, senior ADF officers emphasised the need ‘to continue to fight while hurt’ in the modern congested, contested and competed battlespace.

Concerns about the overwhelming pace of change surfaced in statements that ‘5th generation platforms on 4th generation infrastructure result in 3rd generation effects’. For the 5th Gen IME to be an enabler, a future concept of operations must directly address these needs and concerns.

At MilCIS 2018, keynote speakers called for Industry to help the ADF address the harsh realities of the modern battlespace. They observed that current thinking, particularly around information advantage, was mostly ineffective in conceptualising the problems and guiding architectures.

Major challenges and capability gaps were identified, only some of which are being partially addressed by current programs. Despite best efforts to date, they admitted it was unclear what must change and what must be different.

They called for a new paradigm; a shift in the way we think about the 5th Gen IME.

A Budget article from ADM’s Managing Editor Katherine Ziesing this year asked senior Defence Finance officials why no ICT programs appear in the Top 30 Acquisition and Sustainment list. They commented that these programs are usually short in nature, not materiel-related unlike the other Defence programs ... and it’s not core business.

“That argument rings hollow to me,” Ziesing wrote. “Take Centralised Processing (CP) or Next Generation Desktop for example; running at well over $1 billion in spending across more than five years, it is a key enabler to Defence’s core business.”

It seems that, when extended to the 5th Gen IME, there currently exists a fundamental disconnect when the information component is not treated as core business to warfighting and hence managed as a weapons system itself.

There has also been the belated realisation that the word ‘network’ had been misunderstood to mean communication bearers and maybe TCP/IP or software-defined networks. David Alberts, author of Understanding Information Age Warfare, observed networks are intended to be about collaboration guided by C2; not purely about the technology. Another indication that the 5th Gen IME should be fundamentally different.

Based on the above, I argue that the 5th Gen IME requires a much broader scope than currently thought – one not limited to information alone. The two central design concepts require a 5th Gen Agency Management Framework (5th Gen AMF), where ‘agency’ denotes the ability to take action either singly or collectively and muster resources – not just information.

The emergence of high-speed communications, powerful computing, more capable weapons and ever-increasing technological complexity has enabled defence forces in their various capacities. Several approaches have emerged when contemplating the best way forward. They include:

  • Process driven models – the Intelligence cycle of Direct, Collect, Analyse and Produce, and Disseminate;
  • Data-centric approach for enabling infrastructure – Enterprise Information Management;
  • Network Centric Warfare (NCW) theory – including the concept of Information Superiority, defined as “the operational advantage derived from the ability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while denying an adversary’s ability to do the same” [DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms 2019 Joint Publication 1-02];
  • The decision cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (the OODA loop); and,
  • Current NATO work on Command and Control (C2) Agility Advantage and autonomous intelligent units – the evolutionary successor of NCW.

These substantive bodies of work, with their many insights, have resulted in a disjointed world view, each competing for attention with no unifying framework. Some were so intricate and conceptual that their subtleties were lost; management takeaways were simplified at best and misunderstood at worst, potentially rendering them ineffective. Others only described one element while ignoring the bigger picture. Some became reductive or process-driven that they emerged as absolute truths, such as it is all about data, which were both simultaneously true and pointless.

Enduring characteristics of a battlespace
There has been considerable discussion around artificial intelligence (AI), big data, machine learning, autonomous behaviour, cyber protection, networks, open standards, information fusion and management. These all make 5th Gen warfare different, but where are the enduring characteristics on which we can build?

There is, in fact, an underlying commonality within the battlespace when identifying where decisions are made and how information flows. Firstly decisions are made by nodes communicating and collaborating with other nodes in C2 formations. Secondly, nodes observe and respond through ‘self-capable’ sensors and effectors – similar to the human body with five senses integrated by the brain. This integration implies a clear sense of self (reliably tightly coupled) and non-self (unreliable or loosely coupled). Thirdly, to achieve their objectives, nodes must collaborate and act.

The fog of war and disrupted communications may limit their ability to discover other nodes and resources, creating islands of fragmented connectivity. Finally, to ‘fight when hurt’, the fabric must be smart and self-healing, able to utilise the best available actions and resources.

Several features capture these enduring characteristics:

  • The battlespace covers five domains of warfare, being land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. These work integrally and jointly together.
  • The battlespace can be a heterogeneous coalition. There may be several partners collaborating to achieve an agreed outcome, but each with different rules of engagement and differing means of operation.
  • Action exists throughout the battlespace. It’s an untidy, ever-changing space, where decisions are enacted based on information that is injected, transported and consumed, depending upon intent and resources available.
  • Every node in the battlespace has agency. Where ‘agency’ denotes the ability to take action and nodes have the capacity, to a greater or lesser extent, to act via the OODA loop.
  • Nodes collaborate. Nodes exchange intent and meaning, where information and data alone is secondary. They collaborate to achieve tasks either alone or by working in groups.
  • Nodes require C2 Agility. Groups always have some form of C2. Depending upon intent and circumstance, groups can either have or be able to move to a workable C2 approach or degrade in their ability to achieve their goal when no suitable approach is apparent.
  • Agency involves the collaborative exchange of intent and meaning. Data transfer, while inevitable, is secondary.
  • Collaboration requires a ‘smart fabric’. Where ‘smart fabric’ describes an overarching system weaving or binding nodes together. This requires an awareness of the resources currently available in the fabric, intelligence to allocate those resources, and the means to manage disruption and recovery.
  • Security must be dynamic and contextual. Collaboration can only be achieved by flexible, dynamic security, integrated with C2 tasking, balancing the need to know with the need to share.
  • Standardisation and Specialisation are both priorities. The data and system needs, tasks and echelon hierarchies required to support force elements at tactical, operational and strategic levels in the battlespace vary dramatically and evolve. For the 5th Gen AMF both standardisation AND specialisation must be embraced and not viewed as seemingly contradictory strategies or outcomes.
  • Interoperability is a distributed, not centralised, problem. The multiple domains and partners, differing and evolving technologies, overlapping C2 events (often driven by Communities of Specialisation) and variable communications require distributed interoperability.
  • Data always overwhelms communication. The ever-increasing volumes of data and the laws of physics inevitably result in insufficient reliable bandwidth to meet all communications needs.
  • Communications will be disrupted. Networks are contested, congested and competed throughout the global battlespace. Viable network paths and usage strategy change based on circumstances. Networks fragment and re-combine either by choice or opponent actions. Networks must be resilient and must be designed accordingly.

The fundamental language for this world view is then:

  • Action;
  • Agency;
  • Node;
  • Fabric;
  • Collaboration;
  • Standardisation AND Specialisation;
  • C2 agility; and,
  • Resilient Networks.

This language must form the foundations for the 5th Gen AMF, which comprises FABRIC and RESCOM. With the right design, these concepts can be integrated to create a global platform which directly addresses battlespace needs, is stable, and embraces evolution. While the US Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is evolving in this direction it is costly and hard to sustain, due to its inherent complexity and the technical debt which accumulates during this migration.

Exploring C2 agility
David Alberts was instrumental in describing Network Centric Warfare in the early 2000s. Since NCW concepts were introduced, current thinking across the international C2 community and NATO has continued to evolve. We have come to understand that C2 Agility is critical to conceptualise the battlespace; it works to simplify NCW thinking.

In its introduction to the Task Group SAS-085 Final Report on C2 Agility, NATO the core tenets are:

“Given the differences between and among mission challenges and the collections of entities needed to meet them, different approaches to C2 are required.

“There will be times when an entity is engaged in a highly dynamic situation where the mission, and/or the circumstances will change and one’s current C2 Approach will no longer be appropriate.

“Thus, entities also need to be able to dynamically transition from their current C2 Approach to a more appropriate one; that is, to manoeuvre in the C2 Approach Space.

“This ability to manoeuvre in the C2 Approach Space involves: 1) recognizing the significance of changes in circumstances that affect the appropriateness of one’s C2 Approach, 2) understanding which C2 Approach(es), given the new mission and/or circumstances, are now more appropriate, and, 3) being able to transition, as necessary, to a more appropriate approach.”

The battlespace typically includes different C2 approaches reflecting commanders’ intent and specific sub-missions and tasks. The optimal strategy varies, based on objectives, self-capabilities, current circumstances, timeliness demands, and the opponent’s intent and actions.

All C2 approaches are subject to stresses that can impact on their intended behaviour, reinforcing the need for self-monitoring (as demonstrated by NATO SAS case studies). Entities, also referred to in this article as nodes, should know what C2 approach they are applying, how locations may be affected by circumstance, and how to manoeuver to a better approach if needed.

The way forward
Having outlined a way of understanding the battlespace and the need for C2 Agility, I would like to offer two insights that describe a possible way forward.

The first is that the battlespace is best described as actions playing out on a smart fabric hosting smart nodes. In the 5th Gen AMF this is the role of FABRIC.

A system for the 5th Gen Force must be holistically designed to work together from the start. The ADF has acquired systems and platforms, then struggled to integrate and deploy them. FABRIC conceptually inverts this practice and points to new tools able to fully integrate the future 5th Gen Force, no matter what capabilities are acquired now and in the future.

FABRIC bases its integration approach directly on the characteristics of the battlespace and the need for C2 agility. FABRIC is intended to be:

  • Smart – able to decide and take action rather than be a passive observer;
  • Aligned – to the battlespace and C2 agility;
  • Flexible – engineered to be dynamically configurable, mitigate disruption, sense and act on events, and exploit opportunities;
  • Standardised AND Specialised – designed for and embracing both outcomes;
  • Adaptable – able to operate across multiple scenarios;
  • Sustainable – designed to manage complexity, welcome evolution, and support both commonality and specialisation;
  • Plug and Play – allowing other assets to be introduced, interoperated and retired as needed;
  • Vertically Integrated – designed as a whole not in parts; and
  • A Critical Joint Asset – enduring, maintained and evolving for decades not a one-off-project.

FABRIC will host:

  • Technology – weapons systems, big data, artificial intelligence, interoperability, security, information fusion, information dissemination, communications and networking;
  • Tasks – the kill web (any sensor, best shooter), C2, Integrated Fire Control (IFC) and Integrated Air Missile Defence (IAMD), Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (ISREW) and post-action analysis;
  • Platforms – drones, tanks, ships data centres and the myriad of other tangible items; and
  • Training – live, virtual and constructive training within the operational environment.

For the 5th Gen AMF to achieve its full potential FABRIC will need to work in conjunction with RESCOM (but can work less optimally with traditional networks). While FABRIC will deliver the ability to decide and act, RESCOM will manage all aspects of connectivity; working together to provide the best available outcomes under the circumstances.

Think of RESCOM as a smart network manager. It must be resilient, global in reach, adaptively use local channel bearers and multi-hops and sense and report to FABRIC on its current and anticipated future operational health.

FABRIC and RESCOM must be synergistic. Each must not encroach on the other or exhibit unexpected behaviour or ill-directed optimisations; they must be designed together not stitched together from multiple disjoint systems and standards. The second insight is that having real-time data from the battlefield assists decision making at all levels, but it does not describe action. Reasoning about action is essential for an increasingly automated 5th Gen Force. Action requires thinking in terms of what I’m calling Agency Advantage, a complement to Information Advantage, and builds on the current NATO SAS-085 definition for C2 Agility being “Agility is the capability to successfully effect, cope with and/or exploit changes in circumstances”.

I believe this definition should be broadened to include Agency Advantage and propose adding the following words at the front of NATO’s original definition so it would now read: “Agency Advantage is the capability and authority to act, either individually or as a collective; to successfully effect, cope with and/or exploit changes in circumstances”. Importantly, this definition applies to asymmetric warfare, which cannot be addressed solely with Information Advantage.

Ramifications of transformation
Continuous improvement of the existing infrastructure does not inevitably lead to transformation, where transformation represents a new way of engineering for the 5th Gen Force. It cannot be cobbled together using current infrastructure or off-the-shelf systems. Once the essential transformed foundations are established then continuous improvement becomes the benchmark for ongoing change, albeit in a radically new direction.

The transformation includes how systems are acquired; they must be able to integrate with the smart fabric and nodes. Security is transformed based on C2 Agility with tasks utilising inbuilt dynamic protection based upon context, intent and circumstance.

This is in contrast to database level locking, while traditional network security domains are rethought. The distribution of updates, agents and behaviours are developed, governed and managed securely and robustly. By providing a framework for the management of distributed interoperability across communities of specialisation, we potentially transform how quickly and easily systems and platforms can either be brought into service or retired. Overall, the way complexity is managed will be transformed.

How far have these ideas penetrated current information system design in the ADF and industry?

To date, the principles underlying the 5th Gen AMF have not surfaced in how operational patterns, vignettes and information needs are related to technology architecture. Architectures continue to reflect systems and platforms connected by networks and data. This perceived lack of awareness concerns, given this analysis points to the need for a paradigm shift to form the basis of an Australian critical system for the 5th Gen Force.

The Major inversions
Together, Agency Advantage and FABRIC invert ADF’s previously held understanding about how to engineer the foundations for the 5th Gen Force. These are a few of the inversions.

The simplistic takeaway from NCW was that the solution lay with more networks, more information and more bandwidth, creating the current ‘upper corner’ model (see grpahic above). In contrast, Agency Advantage requires both smart nodes and a smart fabric, creating the rising tide model. This model hosts actions and supports C2 Agility, optimises outcomes whatever the circumstance, and creates ‘plug and play’ infrastructure for custom systems. It is more analytically useful too. When benefits are lopsided, the results are platforms with disjoint systems – siloed systems, or, unbalanced processing networks – centralised computing with little consideration given to the tactical edge.

Architecture Comparison
The current information architecture approach concentrates on systems and platforms joined together by passive networks and data creating the networked passive data model. The network cloud hides the need for integration and interoperability or implies central processing – encouraging hub and spoke solutions. This leads to the mistaken view that the systems can be created in the fixed domain and then extended with minimal change to the deployed domain.

In contrast, the 5th Gen AMF approach inverts the networked passive data model by replacing the passive cloud ‘void’ in the middle of the information architecture approach with the 5th Gen AMF (see figure right) – an active fabric which manages both deployed and fixed nodes to achieve joint effects; creating a distributed agency model.

Traditional networks and data are no longer the focus. Platforms and systems must work together, integrating locally via nodes and actively collaborating via the fabric. This model is resilient and self-optimising, attempting to exploit any change in circumstances. It uses the available resource and the networks as they stand or is optimised through RESCOM.

Complexity Management Comparison
Humans manage complexity badly. Often we revert to process or over-simplification in response thereby blinding us to the real problem while worsening the outcomes. Complexity must be addressed head-on by, wherever possible, reducing the problem from the complex to the merely complicated (see the Cynefin framework for more detail on this).
The extent to which architecture supports these outcomes is a direct measure of how well it reduces complexity. The right architecture supports these outcomes with a platform which, while still complicated, isolates complexity to where it is required and allows us to engineer the rest.

With the current silos and systems approach, as the need for connectedness increases, but remains ad-hoc, and standards lag behind innovation, complexity becomes unmanageable – creating the ad-hoc model. In this model the complex problem:
(1) is treated by a short term, over-simplified solution
(2) Integration and deployment results in complex ad-hoc system-of-systems with virtual private networks or messaging but minimal unifying foundations or consistent interoperability. For each capability developed, almost every aspect of the functional and non-functional requirements must be individually addressed, resulting in significant maintenance and evolutionary overheads – often resulting in chaos
(3)All too often this results in disorder and project failure.

In contrast, the 5th Gen AMF approach takes the complex problem and determines how it can be supported by a complicated, but engineered, solution. Once the characteristics of the engineered solution are determined it can be incrementally delivered, providing support for areas of emergent, best practice and even fire-fighting activities – creating the managed complexity model.

In this way 5th Gen AMF can simplify 360o plug-and-play integration at a tightly coupled locale, supporting diverse platforms and systems integrated with a plug-and-play model providing active collaboration, interoperability and C2 Agility across the battlespace.

Functional and non-functional requirements can be addressed systematically including security, sharing and discovery, micro-services and cross-domain gateways, with the potential to enhance compliance and assessment with the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) control framework.

Is is worthwhile?
Any new approach must work successfully and enduringly in the field if it is to be proven. There are costs and risks to reach this point. Reliable tests for merit are needed before commencement, by asking if the new approach:

  • Unifies previously disjointed or disconnected frameworks into a harmonious whole?
  • Respects and describes the operational characteristics:
  • reflecting battlespace realities and laws of physics; and
  • utilising language which clearly and easily describes that domain?
  • Allows us to judge the efficacy of our choices, to recognise success?
  • Provides reliable guidance to build effective, workable solutions?
  • Proves falsifiable?

Questioning a model demands a level of rigour, honesty, and engagement from multiple parties, thereby ensuring best practice and a practical, enduring outcome.

Incorporating specialisations and new technology
Specialisation refers to the different disciplines within the ADF, where individual specialisations use different languages and require differing technologies and systems. Inevitably communication between specialisations can be difficult, and their needs cannot be met with standardised solutions alone.

Hardware and software technology advances over the last few years have meant systems such as FABRIC and RESCOM can now be engineered. There are ways of introducing them into the existing infrastructure which, while initially disruptive, will ensure continuity. It will be crucial, however, that any introduction is not hampered by existing infrastructure, patterns and architecture. As part of the 5th Gen AMF evolution, these issues need to be re-evaluated and potentially require refactoring.

Through the use of new technology, the 5th Gen AMF and FABRIC can become an enduring critical asset, allowing the ADF to support specialisation on a stable foundation to achieve an evolving and sustainable 5th Gen Force.

This article applies first principles reasoning to demonstrate that Agency Advantage, as imagined in the 5th Gen AMF with FABRIC and RESCOM, could be the path to transforming the wider ADF into an integrated, networked force. Without this transformation, the ADF is potentially at risk of not achieving its 5th Gen Force objectives.

If the new approach is proven to have merit, the ADF must investigate, develop and validate this exciting opportunity with its key industry and global partners. If this initiative delivers on its promise, it will provide the ADF with the flexible foundation it seeks to deliver rapid technological innovation and faster, more agile systems for the emerging and evolving 5th Gen Force. The 5th Gen AMF is core business and is a weapons system.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu reflected that “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

With an effective paradigm we get results; without one we get confusion.

This article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of ADM. 

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