The year is 2030. A battalion commander crawls silently through the brush with his forward reconnaissance team. The group halts at a muddy precipice, looking out at the jungle canopy below and a sea of jagged mountains fading into the clouds. The commander pulls out his tablet and takes a quick glance at the joint coalition common operational picture and the adversary’s collection capabilities focused on his position. He has small teams positioned throughout the craggy terrain and lethal long-range precision fires and air defense in the rear.
After a minute, he clicks off his tablet. He can’t report back to brigade just yet; he needs to minimize his unit’s electromagnetic signature until conditions are right.
As he pockets his device and heads back down the mountainside to his vehicle, the commander reflects on the situation. He has felt the terrain and seen the likely avenues of approach; he’s got about an hour to maneuver his forces without enemy space-based collection capabilities overhead. So, he heads back to one of the battalion’s tactical operations centers in a nearby village—a shop that, from above, looks like just another local building. He connects to a secure wireless network, blending into the normal digital noise of the village, and gathers his team to issue orders.
Things have changed since he was a lieutenant in Afghanistan 20 years ago. In those days, his battalion commander surveyed the common operational picture from behind a sea of projectors, in a building surrounded by HESCO barriers and concertina wire. There were no artificial intelligence-based sensors or drone swarms to hide from. Darkness was a leader’s go-to for concealment, which was sufficient since only U.S. forces had advanced night-vision capabilities.
Although the nature of war remains constant, its character has changed dramatically in recent years and continues to evolve. The Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the endless space for battlefield adaptation and innovation—and that space, and the technology available to soldiers, will only expand in coming years.
The U.S. Army is moving quickly to keep pace with the present and prepare for the future. We’re rethinking the requirements process, investing in digital capabilities to better mobilize and secure our data and drawing on new acquisition tools and approaches. But there’s more to be done, and the Army can’t finish that work alone.
This opening visualization is meant to convey the needs of future leaders. In essence, there are four baseline requirements warfighters need from their command and control systems in tomorrow’s fight.
First is simplicity.
Over the past several decades, the Army has grown accustomed to large, exquisite, custom-built platforms: command suites with many screens and fancy dashboards that require a cadre of experts and field service personnel to sustain.
We envision—and work toward—a battlefield with less kit and greater mobility. Leaders will hide in plain sight, managing the battle from the back of vehicles and occupied buildings with little to no visible footprint. They will need effective, relevant and timely information delivered on hand-held platforms—and the Army will lean on industry to ensure these platforms can be easily configured. We understand that building the architecture to fit this dynamic is difficult, but we cannot pass those challenges on to soldiers in the fight.
Second is intuitiveness.
In recent conflicts, we have relied on secure and static forward operating bases, where tech teams, contractors and specialized soldiers could set up shop and provide perpetual support. There was no issue with using complex, highly customized systems to command and control the fight, because we could augment those tools with people on the forward operating base who would make them work.
Such an arrangement is not practicable in a fight where there will be periods of degraded communications and where every domain—land, air, sea, space and cyberspace—is contested. Any soldier should be able to fall in on an intuitive, user-friendly platform and continue a mission.
Third is low signature.
For decades, we’ve been setting up antenna farms on the battlefield—every system equipped with its own ruggedized server stack. However, in the age of heightened sensing, such high-signature systems are not feasible. Our adversaries can see almost as well and as far as we can. Moreover, since we can no longer rely on uncontested air superiority, antennas and servers are a liability, not an asset. Warfighters must be able to adjust signal emissions based on real-time adversary collection capabilities and disguise such emissions within the local commercial electromagnetic spectrum.
Command and control systems of the past broadcasted the location of headquarters elements, but the systems of today and tomorrow must enable leaders to blend in. For industry, this means warfighters need platforms with smaller footprints and that conform to architectural considerations that control for emissions.
The fourth and final characteristic is continuous iteration.
The technology of tomorrow will be even more advanced than the impressive array of systems available today.
Just as we all expect to upgrade our personal phones on a regular basis, the battalion commander in the opening scenario, above, will need the flexibility to acquire a new tablet or new visual augmentation system before the war is won.
Command and control platforms must be flexible to rapid updates to improve functionality, capability and capacity. For industry, this means systems must be built with open infrastructure and the ability to easily configure data. Moreover, vendors must be ready to work together to provide agile, innovative solutions that evolve over time.
To achieve this, our institutional processes must adapt as well.
Shift in Buying Models
To implement these conditions, the Army will require more than just the brightest minds in tech. We’ll also need to reform the way we buy systems. With help from Congress, we have implemented new acquisition authorities and established a more user-driven development process—one that allows us to test prototypes before we buy them and enables iteration throughout the development and acquisition life cycles based on the feedback that matters most: the soldier’s.
This shift is manifesting in the Army’s increased reliance on “as-a-service” and consumption-based buying models, which helps right-size purchases based on demand and leverages available commercial infrastructure rather than bulking up on unnecessary kit.
By way of example, models like this have enabled the integration of radios that rely on commercial encryption and connect to sensitive but unclassified networks, thereby enhancing interoperability across services and with our allies. Army leaders will build on cases like this to ensure we are buying, developing, integrating and fielding the right systems, all while increasing mutual reliability in contracting relationships.
While we celebrate individual accounts of heroism, the truth is that warfighting is a team effort.
It takes team effort in tactical formations, but also team effort across the Army enterprise to ensure warfighters have what they need to win when called upon.
In this spirit, Army leadership is working to enforce a warfighter-centered acquisitions culture that capitalizes on evolving technology to deliver innovative and effective systems to soldiers. We have tasked the U.S. Army Futures Command to bridge the gap between the armies of 2030 and 2040; we are developing a more agile software acquisitions process that embraces a buy-try-decide framework; and, more recently, we are investing in “zero trust,” the cloud and data governance. In sum, we are streamlining processes, improving requirements development and keeping an eye on the future. And more change is coming.
We also are working to build workforce expertise within the Army team with initiatives like the Software Factory, the AI Scholars Program and upskilling, or providing more advanced skills, and by shifting our mindset to be more solution-seeking and user-centric in our design process.
But teamwork does not end with the Army, or even DoD. For hundreds of years, American ingenuity has backed our warfighters and enabled us to build and sustain the world’s most lethal fighting force. Maintaining partnerships with industry, academia and entrepreneurs will enable us to maintain that dominance.
Army leaders are all-in. We are calling on our teammates—commanders, industry partners and other innovators—to help us instill culture and systems that are simple, intuitive, low-signature and iterative. With your help, when called upon, our Army will have the edge to dominate our adversaries and defend the rules-based international order and American way of life.
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Gabe Camarillo was sworn in as the 35th undersecretary of the Army on Feb. 8, 2022. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. He also recently ran an engineering and information technology services business unit for a Fortune 500 company. His career includes significant experience in law, national security and private industry. He holds a law degree from Stanford University, California.
Gen. Randy George assumed duties as vice chief of staff of the Army in August 2022. Previously, he served as senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, and he has served in a variety of other staff assignments. He has commanded at every level from company to corps. He deployed in support of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He was commissioned from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, and holds two master’s degrees: one in economics from the Colorado School of Mines and one in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College.