Friday News Roundup — September 10, 2021

The Post-September 11th Strategic Drift; The Army’s Networked Warfighter

Good morning on a Friday that is strangely bookended by two great crises of our time. Yesterday, in what could be one of the defining moments of his presidency, President Biden announced a wide-ranging mandate for Covid vaccination at private companies with 100 employees, along with a range of other measures including increased access to testing and booster distribution to come. Tomorrow, we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, remembering the examples of heroism and courage shining light through dark times. In a contrast of how things have changed in two decades, the contrast of the partisanship and politicization of the pandemic with the unity following September 11th speaks volumes. Still, as a reminder of the strategic challenge ahead, President Biden spoke directly with General Secretary Xi Jinping, as the leaders “discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.” This comes after the repeated disrespect of U.S. officials by their Chinese counterparts, as well as the realization that Xi has consolidated decision-making power.

This week, Dan and Michael Farr, President & CEO of Farr, Miller & Washington, wrote for CNBC about Beijing’s crackdowns on its private sector, growing tension, and choices that will have to be made on both sides of the Pacific about profit and principles. Joshua reviewed two works this week, first on Dr. Seth Jones’ upcoming book “Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare”, and second on Spencer Ackerman’s “Reign of Terror” regarding the legacy of 9/11 on American politics.

Much as we look back and look forward today, the roundup does the same. Dan looks at the past two decades, and, while we should remember the heroism of September 11th and those who fought in the war on terror, the two decades have been marked by strategic drift. Ethan looks ahead to how the army is working to better network its warfighters. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.

The Strategic Drift of Two Decades

Dan Mahaffee

For many remembering the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the memories are still crystal clear. Two decades have failed to blur the clear images in our minds — the jet black smoke cutting across the crystal clear skies of New York, Washington, and rural Pennsylvania. Our solemn commemorations on this day should reflect on the tragic loss and selfless heroism of the victims and first responders. Beyond this commemoration — and in many ways separate from the stories of individual valor and bravery — we can take stock, with two decades behind us, of how our strategic focus shifted towards a war on terrorism and missed a rapidly changing trends at home and abroad.

Before the planes were hijacked, the priorities of the Bush administration were defining the U.S.-China relationship and addressing the shortcomings of the U.S. education system. The EP-3 crisis of the summer has shown how tensions between Washington and Beijing could quickly spike, while few will forget that President Bush was speaking about education at a Florida school when he was informed that America was under attack. Once focused on the rise of a growing competitor and the need to build talented future generations of Americans, our politics and politicians quickly shifted to the Global War on Terror.

While the years of that conflict have been marked by the tactical and operational excellence of our forces and allies, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates the gap between the tactical and operational levels and the strategic outcomes we desired. As we have spoken of in our coverage on Afghanistan, it was a war where the strategic end goal was never clear or realistic, despite the best efforts of those on the ground. Our security infrastructure and military footprint shifted towards low-intensity conflicts where our air power and logistic support were largely uncontested. The operation to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrated the excellence of our intelligence and special forces, but how will that work when the adversary could be Russian forces in the Baltics or the Chinese navy in the Taiwan Strait? While our military did gain real combat experience, it was worn down in years of tough expeditionary combat. Beijing and Moscow studied our way of fighting and learned how their asymmetrical advantages could be pressed ahead.

Our internal focus also shifted, rightly so, to address the shortcomings in a system that allowed the hijackers to slip through the cracks and commit their acts of terror. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a massive bureaucratic reorganization, with the benefits and drawbacks still being debated, but at least it began a conversation and greater focus on domestic resilience and the protection of critical infrastructure. It’s sprawling bureaucracy and continually byzantine Congressional oversight, on the other hand, became a cautionary tale of executive reorganization. In terms of great power competition, the rapid shifts in intelligence and law enforcement to focus on Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups came at the expense of counterintelligence, cyberdefense, and counter organized crime, vacuums in our attention that China and Russia would again avail themselves of.

In many ways we focused on al-Qaeda and the broader War on Terror with our entire strategic focus shifting to questions of militarily defeating an ideology and reshaping societies in the Middle East and South Asia, yet only holding operational and tactical answers. Following September 11th, the focus was to protect the homeland from terrorism — to protect our economy, our political system, and the lives of the American people. While we have indeed prevented another attack on our homeland like September 11th, the greater threat to our economy came from our short-sightedness and greed; our hyper-partisan media echo-chambers have broken governance (look no further than the impact of sequestration on a military simultaneously at war and preparing for future conflicts); and opioids, guns, and the politicization of a pandemic have taken vastly more American lives.

While we have bolstered our ramparts against another attack like that twenty years ago, the nature of the threats have also changed. Terrorism is as likely to be inspired by social media as it is to come from a training camp, and the future threats to our society may look far more like the Colonial Pipeline hack than airborne hijackers. As we remember the lessons of September 11th — and increasingly teach the history of that day to those born long after the tragic events — stories of the heroism of that day will remain at the forefront, but future generations of policymakers will also need to heed the strategic lessons. While it’s not the only reason for many of the trends that we have experienced over the past twenty years, the events of September 11th redefined history and shaped the environment in which we make policy today.

On September 11th, the unprecedented attack on U.S. soil shifted our focus, but the pace of change at home and abroad did not slacken for the sake of the war on terror. Our military might is without peer, but that gap is being rapidly closed by China. At the same time, the other tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, and political means — took a back seat to the kinetic focus of the post-9/11 environment. For example, the advanced drones flying over Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated the technological excellence and capability of our forces, but the supply chains for the microchips in those drones and missiles are under Beijing’s influence. Now our focus is returning back to this strategic competition. As we do, 9/11 will always serve as a reminder how threats can suddenly emerge and the risk of underestimating adversaries. At the same time, it marks the beginning of an unsettled era for American strategic thought and the task we inherit to ensure the future of American power.

Army tests big-connectivity on big battlefields

Ethan Brown

Soldiers equipped with Integrated Visual Augmentation System for data sharing (U.S. Army)

Connectivity is undoubtedly going to be the key to future conflicts, this is not limited to merely the ability to share data across battlefields and commands, but just as critical — the ability to deny and interfere with adversary data capabilities and connectivity, or operate in information-denial environments.

The Defense department is keying in on these particular vectors, a familiar topic in my corner of the roundup on more Friday’s than not. Set for next month, the U.S. Army is moving ahead with hard systems proofing and interoperability testing on its capacity to share information. It will do so via the on-ramp Project Convergence exercise, which has a great deal of potential to advance the Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC) and its actioning arm, the All-Domain Operations model. This upcoming event, in a first, will include integrated live-fire missions as part of the broader command and control flexing, which ups the ante as it were, for a functions-check of the apparatus and all of its supplemental components. Further, while the main event will occupy the well-worn sand and rock of Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona, multiple installations will ‘dial-in’ as part of the exercise, which will present real-world circumstances in data sharing demands across more than one location, with data lag, timeliness of information, and decision-making under the microscope.

Previous simulations and limited-scope exercises under the concurrent All-Domain Operations initiatives have established baseline parameters on internal systems and single-organisms of the broader Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). Among those exercises include the landmark test of making shooters on dissimilar coding platforms (notably, the F-35 and the F-22) talk to each other, in addition to the various USAF-led JADC2 on-ramps that have validated mass data-sharing, mesh-network hardening and bandwidth capacity. Project Convergence however, is going to be running multiple data pathways in tandem, crossing geographic, geospatial, and platform boundaries in a rapid surge ahead for battlefield tracking.

A huge boon to the new on-ramp, one that is reflective of the progress made to date, will be the significantly increased role of Artificial Intelligence in data management — helping prioritize and distribute sensor and battlefield information against known and developing battlespace awareness on adversary capabilities. The big detractor in this JWC/ADO/JADC2 approach to warfighting is that no single human, or even a wholly tee’d-up group of dedicated humans, can hope to sort through the sheer volume of raw battlefield information of this magnitude in a timely fashion. For correlation and comparison, it takes an Air Traffic Controller years to achieve full certification and proficiency before being entrusted with managing the routing and safety of flight for air transit on known, established, regulated avenues and operating parameters…and excepting the rural air strips with occasional traffic, your standard ATC tower has a small army (pardon the pun) of managers and technicians for something as routine as commercial air travel. Now extrapolate the complexity to multiple metropolitan airports, foot and vehicle traffic, missiles, sharks with laser beams etc., all maneuvering in a contested battlespace.

This is where an enhanced computation assistant will make a significant difference…if it does indeed effectively sort and track which data is most critical at which times. The Army, Navy and Air Force reps preparing for Project Convergence 21 are expecting leaps and bounds in AI-driven data tracking and sorting. So much so that several iterations of next month’s event will be handed over to machine learning and AI systems, with human management of course.

Autonomous Vehicle System “Origin” platform on standby at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ (U.S. Army)

Project Convergence 21 will consist of seven crisis-to-conflict sequences, aimed at replicating a potential real-world scenario that the United States could face in an alarming not-to-distant future. The whole sequence begins with regional monitoring at the ground, air, and geospatial surveillance levels (another leap for Convergence getting beyond line-of-sight and low-earth orbit sensors fully integrated) for potential crisis outbreaks. The second replicates a zero-day massing of firepower: missile defense and air interdiction of enemy air defense infrastructure, while the third depicts a joint-fires operation. Exercises four and five showcase AI and semi-autonomous equipment performing critical roles, including battlefield resupply (logistics in denied environments is, in my humble opinion, as critical to future warfighting as information sharing) and machine-driven sensor reconnaissance and intelligence collection. Phase six will put soldiers on maneuver with the IVAS (Integrated Visual Augmentation System), a situational awareness system that ensures the JADC2 panoply is made available to the lowest echelon of tactical warfighters.

The final component of the exercise will put AI in the de facto drivers seat yet again, with a mounted vehicle assault driven by the AI and machine learning systems, which portends a scene straight out of science fiction: our robotic warfighters against an adversaries forces…human or otherwise; not too dissimilar from the concept of drone swarms, which appeals to combat commanders who shouldn’t overthink the value of shaping the battlefield with throw-away machines doing the bleeding, versus human operators.

While those sorted phases represent a colossal step forward in integrated systems — space, air, data and ground, the penultimate achievement for Project Convergence 21 will be the proof of concept for sending kinetic effects over and around maneuver forces while being managed in a secured, efficient data-sharing system. The previous 2+ decades of integrated fires hosted by the U.S. Army has been achieved via the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, or AFATDS. AFATDS depicts friendly elements on a digital map, including Position of Area Artillery (PAA) and Missile launcher systems, and plots firing solutions/trajectories for kinetic munitions. Where AFATDS falls short, however, is in showing a truly three-dimensional solution of the battlespace, and how kinetic fires move through the battlespace, to say nothing of the limited data sharing capabilities of this archaic system. Under the Convergence construct, dubbed the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS), plotting firing solutions will be enabled by this whole of force incorporation of sensors and friendly battlefield arrays, and with the help of AI, enables the PAAs to sort friendly from foe, prioritize targets and vulnerabilities, and engage at much faster rates of fire with reduced latency and improved clarity.

In short, Project Convergence 21 expects to shorten the killchain in an increasingly complex ground war environment, while the other components of a crises-to-conflict scenario: resupply, enemy maneuver, battle damage assessments, and situational awareness, are all exponentially enhanced for the force commanders and higher echelons of command and control. If the system delivers, that is precisely the kind of capability gap you hope to see in your warfighting forces in an era of great powers competition.

News You May Have Missed

Coup in Guinea Reverberates through Aluminum Markets, Supply Chains

With a special forces unit seizing power and deposing the president, this unrest in Guinea has seen a spike in aluminum prices and concerns about further disruptions to global supply chains. Guinea, in West Africa, produces about 20% of the global bauxite supply, the ore used in making aluminum. While the coup leaders stated that production would continue, prices of aluminum continued to rise. Rising costs or disruption to aluminum would be of concern to many industries already dealing with shortages of semiconductors and rising costs for other inputs.

Row Escalates between Britain and France over Channel Migrants

A war of words between London and Paris continued this week, with French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accusing Home Secretary Priti Patel of “financial blackmail” and stating that proposals by the British government to force migrants back across the channel would violate maritime laws regarding rendering aid to those in distress. Her Majesty’s Government had threatened to withhold promised payments to France for police and immigration patrols in northern France, as well as to turn back any migrant boats crossing the line in the Channel into UK waters. Migration is one of the many post-Brexit issues raising tensions between Britain and France.

The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.



Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress

CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges