A Blessing and a Curse


As I write this column before the start of the biennial DSEI exhibition and conferences (10-13 September) at London’s ExCel Centre, the sheer volume of technological advancement on show in virtually every area of defence will be almost overwhelming.

Gone are the analogue days of over half a century ago where reconnaissance skills, navigational skills, gunnery precision and aerial prowess could still be, at least in good part, attributed to the individual soldiers, sailors and airmen. Of course this in itself is no bad thing; technology has created a more level playing field opening the capability to accomplish tasks to a wider section of the population (the Big Bang Theory meets Captain America). Software and rapid processing has led to the margin for error being substantially decreased while there has been a corresponding increase in precision in everything from kinetic weapons to location identification. The current twist in this never ending arms race has now turned to disrupting this knowledge and capability, not least through cyber attack.

Commander’s at all levels face the daunting challenge of trying to prepare, deploy and sustain their forces against a backdrop of continually available intelligence and information. At the individual unit level, a squad leader will be continually updating the mission brief perhaps with intelligence from his own unit’s micro UAV such as FLIR’s Black Hornet, while battalion assets including larger UAVs such as the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle fill in the broader picture tactically. All this without adding the plethora of air sensors from the Modernised Day Sensor Assembly (M-DSA) on the Boeing AH-64E right through to classified communications analysis systems onboard special aircraft. These might include those such as the RAF’s Sentinel R1 airborne battlefield and ground surveillance equipped Bombardier Global Express, Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawks and even space based sensors if particularly relevant.

But the pressure to produce rapid results and to succeed with minimum casualties has never been greater. The ‘thousand mile screwdriver’ between headquarters (and the politicians) can mean that with every new nugget of intelligence received, comes a temptation to ‘tinker’ with the plan. Accountability is a burden badly shared – politicians, feeling the heat from the usual intense media coverage that magnifies mistakes, urge military commanders to a pace they often know to be too rapid (while the same politicians will limit the numbers deployed as they continually eye the mounting cost of the campaign). Commanders will task lower echelons into conducting missions that they might not be ready to prosecute. Just because a volume of intelligence is available does not mean that all of those down the length of the command chain are sharing the same conglomerated picture.

Layer on top of this aggressive, effective and sustained cyber attacks – and tactical electronic warfare – and the pressure caused by disrupting this information flow is likely to play havoc with the military’s beloved OODA (observe–orient–decide–act) loop. Today’s growing threat of disruption to this steady stream of vital information is designed to create hesitancy and uncertainly. The military may be preparing to counter or, at worst, work around the problem. But what about their political masters, brought up on 24/7 satellite imagery and approving actions from behind the shoulders of Generals?

by Andrew Drwiega, Editor-in-Chief