The Future of Mission Command: an Interview with Mr. Michael McCarthy

Mr. Michael T. McCarthy is a Department of the Army Civilian currently serving as the Chief LANDWARNET Division of the Capabilities Development Directorate within the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Mr. McCarthy has served in various command and staff positions in the United States, Germany and Korea following his commission in the Field Artillery upon graduation from the Virginia Military Institute. He is a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College, where he received a Master of Arts of Operations, Tactics, and Training. He is a 2015 graduate of the Air War College, earning a Master of Arts in National Security Studies and Theory from The U.S. Air War College Grand Strategy curriculum. Mr. McCarthy is a 2016 graduate of the prestigious Defense Senior Leader Development Program. Below he discusses LANDWARNET, multi-domain operations, and ongoing challenges facing the defense establishment with Dr. Reilly and Over the Horizon (OTH) Senior Editors Brandon Davenport, Tom Flounders, and Mark Nexon.


Dr. Reilly (OTH): Thanks for taking the time to discuss LANDWARNET, multi-domain operations, and some of the future challenges facing the US military. If you could, please provide a brief overview of LANDWARNET (LWN).

Mr. Mike McCarthy: LANDWARNET is a project that has been ongoing for almost 20 years, as the Army has tried to get it into the hands of soldiers. LWN essentially aims to provide soldiers at every echelon with the knowledge and data to get inside the adversary’s decision cycle. It is intended to shift the Army to an information dominance concept of fighting. LWN will accelerate our decision cycle by understanding the intent of an adversary, interrupting an adversary’s ability to understand, communicate, and execute its operations. Technology remains the largest challenge. The idea was that Army could just go out and buy solutions and quickly put the desired information in soldiers’ hands. At the individual level we started with Net Warrior.

The Net Warrior ensemble allowed for full-motion video and an information link, but weighed 35 pounds…and it required a mobile nuclear power plant to power it (i.e. too much power). We fielded and tested the gear at Fort Lewis, and unsurprisingly it proved to be too heavy. As we attempted to scale the ensemble down, technology problems followed. Today, the New Warrior concept is a hand held mobile device that costs $150 that is better than the General Dynamics $8K equipment that didn’t work. Right now, our system requires two single-channel radios, but we are working towards one two-channel radio to cut down on weight. We are also exploring new waveforms, but are encountering physics challenges, like the need for more power and range. Right now we have $20K radios that only talk 1.5 kilometers.

Trying to create a tactical environment of networks that allows soldiers to move multi-dimensionally through the battlespace by providing them access to knowledge and information has proven a complex acquisitions challenge. We conceived a system in the 1990’s that is based on 1980’s technology. There is a groundswell of folks that are saying we need a new approach. Program management is an obstacle to LWN, as programs and their managers are largely resistant to cancellation. Our end-game is to provide all echelons access to common sources to build a common picture.

Reilly (OTH): Our Multi-Domain Operations Strategist course is focusing a lot of our studies on C4ISR (Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance). I recently visited the CENTCOM AOR, CFC in Korea, PACAF, and the US Air Forces Europe (USAFE) at Ramstein AB to observe their C4ISR processes. I’m worried about the future and the information-to-knowledge process. How do we sort data and create knowledge before our adversaries realize what we are doing and try to prevent the flow of information to decision makers?

McCarthy: Let me start with your information access concern. A challenge we face is that our traditional security approach is to harden our devices. Hardening devices is very expensive and gives adversaries a good target in terms of countering our desired effect. We are now changing the cryptological chips in all of our radios. We have over 230,000 radios that will require us to install security chips. The challenge is that just like the old encryption, this new encryption will be cracked. I propose that we don’t need a hardened device. Instead we should encrypt the data while in transit, processing, and storage. That way when the algorithm is cracked, we don’t need to physically modify every device in our inventory. We just need to change the information security algorithm. In this scenario, if an adversary gets the data, they can’t use it. Even if it was decrypted, the data at the tactical level is very perishable. Just because a bad guy can get the data, it may not necessarily matter; once decrypted it’s stale and has little to no value. We need to change the paradigm by protecting the data, not the device. It also gives us the option to share the data with our allies and coalition partners. Right now if we sell a radio to our allies, unfortunately it doesn’t mean it will talk to our same radio because of the encryption chip in it. If you are hardware agnostic and open to using spectrum management, you can push that data to our allies and partners which addresses many of our interoperability shortfalls.

We need standards for system and application interoperability that don’t exist today. The interoperability standardization agreement (STANAG) has not been changed in 17 years. The tech and threats have changed and we lack good, viable standards. We remain application focused, but not at the transport layer between systems. As a result, we have very distinct systems at our command posts that cannot or do not talk to other systems. Are you familiar with the KS box? It was developed to sit next to the AMDO’s box and the artillery system box. Each box is very expensive (KS is $75K each). They are basically just Toughbooks. You cannot transfer targets from one to another. The systems simply don’t interoperate. In the CP you are supposed to have a common operating picture (COP), but the systems don’t work together. Blue Force Tracker has a 10-15 minute latency period. Although that is fine for dismounted infantry operations, but that is a big deal with helicopter, fast-mover, or armor forces. As a result, commanders are less confident in the data they have. Instead, they are using maps and sticky notes updated from soldiers in the field and that are only accurate, at best, to 100 square meters. We need to fix interoperability with standards and stop procuring closed systems that don’t work together.

Reilly (OTH): That is a common problem in the Air Force as well. In my experience, the majority of devices in an Air Operations Center (AOC) don’t talk to each other either.

McCarthy: It really traces back to the transport layer. How data moves between systems. How a common track is displayed. In the coalition environment mission partner software (MPS) is typically customized by 30% for a partner country. A weapons system, aircraft, or soldier is identified by a reference number. The US systems which are designed to pass huge amounts of data use static unit reference numbers (URN). In NATO, they use dynamic URN’s. The US system can recognize the number, but only as an unknown. In order correct the unknown nature of the input from the NATO systems, the US system queries the NATO system, while reciprocating with its data. Since most of our partner countries maintain servers with far less capability than US servers, this causes the NATO partner MPS system to crash.

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 Reilly (OTH): It is about both server capacity and dynamic bandwidth prioritization. Are you doing anything with that?

McCarthy: There are a number of efforts underway. First, I’m trying to convince our partners to identify what data they need and to come up with a way to pull specific data. In this concept, they would subscribe for data, instead of getting everything like the US, Australia, and Great Britain do. The bandwidth and spectrum are congested by data duplication.

How do we reduce the throughput? There are a couple of approaches. Everyone loves full motion video (FMV). There is compression that can reduce video by 90%. However, our industry partners want to sell us bigger pipes. Does every soldier need access to YouTube? Does every Airman need FMV of a target take down? We need to focus data allocation to those who need it.

Tom Flounders (OTH): In your opinion, what does the Brigade Combat Team’s or Division’s Tactical Command Post look like? Is it automated, with fewer interfaces?

McCarthy: What is Mission Command? Is it hardware or software? Some people say one or the other. I think it’s neither and it’s both. We must provide the tool set that the Commander needs to make tactical decisions. And we must get smaller and lighter. In the ancient days, my battalion CP would fit into an Air University classroom. The threat then drove us to move CP’s five times a day. The CP was very mobile – we had just gotten HMMVV’s. Everything was vehicle mounted. We could be operational in 15 minutes from the hulk and scram in 10-12 minutes.

We need to carefully consider how we do things in the future. In the past 10 years, when we put a CP up we didn’t worry about power, there was a Burger King built into the CP. It was going to be there for a decade. What do Commander’s need? What do they want? Needs must be tailored to the mission and approached from a multi-dimensional perspective. We may have to leave elements of the CP in a sanctuary or at home station. We need to change our culture and start thinking about how the operational environment affected our operations during the Cold War. Our command nodes were smaller and better protected. We need to mitigate the challenges we face. Right now an airborne infantry brigade combat team command post takes up 14 acres, undispersed. Tents take days to set-up. We need new solutions. Today’s typical CP has 7 KM of CAT V copper wire necessary to link all the systems together. Can low-power, secured wireless to reduce that? Copper doesn’t move well, particularly if you have to move 3 times a day. Right now it takes 5 days to make a CP fully operational. And that CP has a huge physical signature. The EMS signature is enormous, and not from the radios – radio transmissions are responsible for less than 30% of a CP’s EMS signature. It’s the EMS signature from the vehicles that provide power, the copper wire, and the computers. The concentration of these systems make the CP very visible. The thermal signature is also extremely visible. We need to camouflage, disperse, and diffuse the EMS signature. Ultimately, we must move towards smaller, leaner CP’s at all echelons that can facilitate what commanders need versus what the last 10 years have made them think they want.

[Editor’s Note: In Army doctrine, the term Mission Command generally describes three separate but related ideas. The first, and most prominent, idea is the philosophy of Mission Command encapsulated by the principles of mutual trust, teambuilding, shared understanding, mission orders, commander’s intent, and disciplined initiative. This is the most common use of the phrase. The second is the systems of Mission Command which are systems, functions, organizations, and communications by which commanders conduct operations. Third is the Mission Command Warfighting Function which are the tasks and systems commanders use to balance the art of command and science of control. See Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6-0 for more details.]

Reilly (OTH): We consider EMS as part of the MDOS six-domain approach. EMS is at the pinnacle of domains based on future advanced technology.

Brandon Davenport (OTH): Do you think a ‘Black Swan’ scenario in a post-encryption world like Quantum Computing poses a risk to US C4ISR?

McCarthy: Quantum Computing is going to happen and I don’t see that as our Achilles heel. I think it’s the hardware hardening. We need the ability to do over-the-air encryption and push out patches that automatically repair security vulnerabilities, without requiring field service representatives to open each device and provide hours of instruction to users. Quantum Computing will give us the ability to create algorithms to say ahead of the curve to encrypt the data at rest, in transit, and decryption.

Davenport (OTH): Do you think the Services will be able to mandate standards across Services?

McCarthy: I am more concerned with trying to achieve standardization across NATO. Every NATO nation is important and we have to recognize that every state has national secrets they are going to want to protect. Making things happen in that environment is very time-consuming. The data transport layer hasn’t been touched since 2007. I have been working with our allies Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom to approach common standardization problem sets. It might be better to make a 5-nation standardization agreement and provide NATO a way ahead. These countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom) largely drive technology for the rest of NATO and I am trying to provide NATO an example of how to think differently.

Reilly (OTH): The subscription to information idea is interesting and one that MDOS is currently developing for a C4ISR study. This process looks at the collections systems that pull the data, digitally translate the information, send the information to a server on a mesh-net, or cloud, and then populates decision maker requests, and finally push the information to decision makers. With this design Commanders will need to drive the development of decision support matrices to delineate the highest priority information that the Commander wants to push to various echelons of decision makers. Building decision criteria is essential. The challenge I foresee is that our intelligence professionals develop Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIR’s) by framing them as questions and this does not provide the explicit information commanders need for key decisions. We need to develop processes that assist commanders with identifying pre-planned and emergent opportunity decisions, as well as possible enemy decisions. Clearly understanding what information you need will be critical because bandwidth will be overwhelmed with information requirements and the EMS will be contested/degraded.

McCarthy: I agree, but here’s a bigger challenge: If I give you a tactical problem, each of you will look at the problem differently. Everyone uses different information, even to reach the same conclusion. When we develop the system it can’t be so structured that there is only one way to approach and solve or answer the problem. We need to give users (broadly speaking Commanders) the ability to shape the information that they are pulling from the system. Working with the intelligence community can be difficult. The biggest challenge is that they are used to having everything going on behind the “green door.” We now need to get that information to Commanders quickly and that has not ever been a requirement. We are trying to merge our systems into a common operating environment so that all of these tools and systems are able to draw the information they need from various sources to build an accurate and relevant picture.

Reilly (OTH): I completely agree.

Mark Nexon (OTH): How can the Air Force support the Army’s LWN Concept?

McCarthy: We are looking at this concept from a mesh-net approach. There is no reason that every system can’t be part of that network. Aerial relay can extend our tactical networks. And it’s about hiding things in plain sight. In terms of diffusing EMS, you can hide it or turn it off. You’ve got to have the ability to create a situation where an adversary is looking at your EMS signatures, but it cannot discern what they are seeing. All they perceive is a wide swath of emissions. Our adversaries have the same limitations we do. They use the same network structures and spectrum. They are broadcasting and radiating. They are using satellite systems.

The original concept in the 1970s and 1980s was that each Service had their own EMS offensive and defensive capabilities. We decided to divide those missions up to individual Services to save money. The Army gave up Electronic Warfare (EW) and nuclear weapons. As budgets and priorities changed, eventually all of the services dropped EW to a certain extent. The Marines have a helicopter EW pod that none of the other Services have. The Navy has communications systems that allow them to communicate over 100’s of KM without a satellite relay. We should have common, interoperable hand-held radios. As an establishment, the services need to stop thinking parochially about capabilities – especially from a C4ISR standpoint.

Flounders (OTH): How are you thinking about self-healing networks?

McCarthy: That is an approach I’m examining. Self-healing networks have second and third order effects. How do I join the network? Like a kid who gets stuck in a closet. A challenge is that when a radio joins a mesh-net it is constantly pinging it with status, telling it “here I am, here is what I need to work.” It is continually broadcasting, i.e. beaconing. As a result, it uses more of that limited spectrum we are trying to conserve. We need to be able to join a network that isn’t constantly broadcasting and being pinged.

Reilly (OTH): Mike, it looks like we are out of time. On behalf of MDOS, I want to thank you for unselfishly sharing your insights on LWN today. I know you have an exceptionally demanding schedule and I want you to know we are extraordinarily appreciative for the superb quality of the information you have provided us. We wish you the best in your future endeavors.

About the interviewers: Dr. Reilly is the Chair, Joint Warfare Concepts, at the Air Command and Staff College. He is a retired Army officer with over 26 years of active service, including numerous command and staff positions as an infantry officer. Brandon Davenport is an Air Force Space Officer and Weapons Instructor. Tom Flounders is an Army officer and former Cavalry Troop Commander. Mark Nexon is an Air Force officer and Senior Pilot with over 3000 hours in the KC-135 and C-130.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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