Photo-illustraton: Defense Dept., iStock
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for developing cutting edge weapon systems and technology, but when it came time to celebrate its 60th anniversary at a big conference held at National Harbor, Maryland, in September, it was a concept its leaders wanted to talk about.
The military can spend its time developing weapons that are just a bit more faster, a bit more protected or a bit more deadlier than its competitors, but at the end of the day, potential adversaries will come up with something to counter them, said Timothy Grayson, director of DARPA’s strategic technology office.
“Sure, we can try to spend more money and apply advanced technology to our weapon systems and try to stay ahead, but this is ultimately a losing proposition,” he said at the conference. “Every single step in this competition is more complex, more challenging, more costly, and time consuming than the one before.”
The U.S. military must instead use what it has in innovative ways to overwhelm adversaries, create multiple dilemmas and “get inside and disrupt its leaders’ decision-making processes,” he said.
DARPA leaders are calling this “mosaic warfare.” The term was coined by Thomas J. Burns, former director of the strategic technology office and his former deputy director Dan Patt.
Grayson — who has taken up the mantle as mosaic warfare’s chief evangelist after Burns’ retirement — likened modern-day weapons to pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is exquisite. It can only fit one way into the picture, and if one loses a piece, then the picture is incomplete.
A tile in a mosaic is one small part of a bigger picture. “If you lose one tile, not a big deal,” he said. In this metaphor, a tile equals an individual weapon.
Part of the concept is “combining weapons we already have today in new and surprising ways,” Grayson said. Key will be manned-unmanned teaming, disaggregating capabilities, and allowing commanders to seamlessly call on effects from sea, land or air depending on the situation and no matter which of the armed services is providing the capability.
An example in the air domain might include a series of drones to accompany a typical battle formation of four fighter aircraft. One of the robotic wingmen might be there solely to jam radars or employ other electronic warfare capabilities. Another might have a weapon payload. The third might have a sensor package and the fourth could act as a decoy, Burns said in an article distributed at the conference.
Instead of four blips on the radar, the enemy sees eight, and he has no idea what capabilities each of them delivers.
“The adversary can’t predict what we will do next,” Grayson said.
In another example, a Special Operations A-team behind enemy lines spots a previously unknown surface-to-air missile site. It radios in its location and the command-and-control system automatically searches for the best means to destroy the target. It could be a nearby Army brigade, a submarine or a patrolling fighter aircraft. The command is sent and the best platform for the job is called in for a strike.
The problem is that each of these platforms are currently built for its specific mission. Sending the orders is anything but seamless and takes a long time, he said.
Another challenge, Patt said in an article distributed at the conference, is making many diverse, fluid pieces work together. “How can you get all these little pieces all aligned toward a common objective without perfect communications and without planning everything in advance?” he asked.
The problem is the military is still building stovepiped weapons, said retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former Air Combat Command commander and now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.
“Think about it: we built two stealth airplanes from exactly the same contractor with incompatible data links,” he said at the DARPA conference, referring to the Lockheed Martin-built F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
When he was at Air Combat Command, it was called “fusion warfare.”
Mosaic warfare is similar to other warfighting buzzwords currently being bandied about such as systems-of-systems or joint multi-domain operations.
Whatever it is called, “it is really where we need to go,” Carlisle said.
Retired Navy Adm. Scott Swift, former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, said at the conference that in future conflict, communications will be degraded.
“Windows of communication will open and close rapidly in times that are not under the control of the commander,” he said. That is why the autonomy and the unmanned piece of mosaic warfare is important. Systems must be able to act independently when they are cut off from higher headquarters, he said.
As for the Navy, mosaic warfare might combine ships, reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned underwater and surface vehicles, John Waterston, program manager in the strategic technology office and a Navy Reserve officer, said in an article distributed at the conference.
The concept would provide more complexity to adversaries as it combines several domains including air, land, sea and underwater, he said.
“We keep making awesome stealth fighters, or better submarines, and better and better unmanned systems,” he said. “The thinking is: why don’t we take simpler systems and then network them together, have them share, collaborate — sense their world in their own unique way — and put them together?”
Tying all of the disparate systems together with secure, seamless communications is the “DARPA-hard” problem that the organization has to solve if it is to make mosaic warfare a reality. The strategic technology office is working on several programs — concentrating on the software needed to make it happen — while the tactical technology office is developing the hardware, namely the autonomous systems needed for wingman concepts, according to DARPA officials.
Retired Army Gen. David Perkins, former Training and Doctrine Command commander, said when he was at TRADOC, the multi-domain battle concept was called “old wine in a new bottle,” or “air-land battle on steroids.”
“I would push back on that,” he said at the conference. “In thinking about the problem, we did not define it right and we did not define it enough early on,” he said.
“There are cultural aspects as well, especially when giving capability to a lower level. There are those who are uncomfortable relinquishing control of their systems. You have to learn to empower people,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force and Army are pushing ahead with new doctrine called either “multi-domain operations” or “joint multi-domain operations.”
The Air Force is taking steps to help its leaders wrap their heads around the new complex concept. It convened a multi-domain command-and-control enterprise capabilities cooperation team about a year ago under the auspices of Brig. Gen. Chance Saltzman, Air Force director of current operations and deputy chief of staff for operations.
Command and control in today’s battlefield is complex, but now that space and cyber have been added into the mix, it’s even more so, he told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
The Air Force is organizing a series of tabletop “assessments” to help answer some major questions. These assessments — which are not war games or exercises, he stressed — will seek the right command-and-control structures that allow the Air Force to effectively prosecute multi-domain operations. They were slated to take place the first week of November.
Multi-domain battles are also envisioned as being more joint and Saltzman said the team is in constant contact with the other services as well as the office of the secretary of defense about multi-domain operations.
As for current Army leaders, they also call their new doctrine “multi-domain operations.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in a speech at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in Washington, D.C., described something close to mosaic warfare without ever using the term.
“Multi-domain operations is about winning — winning on tomorrow’s battlefield by simultaneously achieving overwhelming battlefield dominance and overmatch in all five domains of warfare,” Milley said.
“We intend to seize and maintain the initiative, to gain positions of advantage, and breach defenses in depth through combined arms maneuver in all domains and operate at speeds far faster than the enemy can react,” he said. The goal is “to disrupt, penetrate, disintegrate and exploit the enemy’s anti-access systems and bring their fielded forces to operational paralysis.”
Yet when a group of Army leaders including the new Futures Command’s Commander Gen. John Murray, Undersecretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Bruce Jette, were asked by a reporter about DARPA’s mosaic warfare concept, none of them had ever heard of it.