A central feature of the ongoing revolution in precision strike is the explosion in the application of networks and networking solutions to tactical, operational and even strategic problems. The clearest examples of how the ability to connect sensors to shooters to command and control has been in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the ability to pass data from Special Forces on the ground to overhead air assets that could retarget weapons in flight that allowed the U.S. Air Force and Navy to apply its overwhelming long-range precision strike capability to the close air support mission.
These same networks and connectors have also enabled the expanded use of Unmanned Aerial Systems both for force protection and offensive missions. The power of the network is such as to motivate at least one reputable think tank to conclude that a new military revolution may be in the offing:
“Global communications connectivity and the common operating picture that was made possible by linking the inputs of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and other sensors enabled a close partnership between airmen and SOF [Special Operations Forces] units and shortened the time from identification to successful target attacks. Such networked operations are now the cutting edge of an ongoing shift in American combat style that may be of greater revolutionary potential than was the introduction of the tank at the beginning of the 20th century.” (1)
It is somewhat ironic the effort to make each sortie, each weapon launch precise and effective has now led to the growing requirement to network and coordinate actions on the ground, at sea and in the air. The greatest impact of smaller weapons results from their precise placement. As the number of tactical and strategic platforms declines due to inexorable budget pressures, it will become all the more important to ensure that each weapon is delivered precisely for maximum effect.
Network-empowered strike platforms such as the F-35 and new bomber will be equipped with sophisticated sensor and communications suites that will enable them to share data during the course of a mission. This will not only allow them to counter better advanced air defense threats but to dynamically retarget weapons based on a continually changing common operating picture. As a result, the need for restrikes is likely to be significantly reduced. Similar capabilities are being backfitted onto current platforms including both the F-22 and the older strategic bombers.
Accurate ISR and extremely precise weapons delivery have resulted in reduced collateral damage. This condition has gone from a secondary consideration to a primary targeting requirement in the limited conflicts of the past two decades.
The network is also empowering another form of collaboration; that between defensive systems. The U.S. Navy’s Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) is designed to integrate both dedicated sensor platforms such as the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and Aegis air defense system with Army and Air Force sensors and weapons to enhance defenses against both ballistic and air breathing threats. The Army’s JLENS tethered aerostat surveillance system has demonstrated the ability to support both air and missile defense launches. The Aegis ballistic missile defense system has successfully fired a Standard Missile 3 based on remote data from forward deployed radar. The goal is eventually to be able to employ high quality data from dispersed sensors to conduct the actual engagement remotely, without additional guidance data from the system that launches the missile.
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