The Combat Cloud Across the Range of Military Operations: Multinational Partnerships

Editor’s Note: The ability to command and control is critical to multi-domain operations, and will only increase in criticality as the world becomes more complex. This requires higher information flow and connectivity to ensure seamless integration of a vast array of warfighters. Over the next several weeks, Over the Horizon will present a series of articles on the Combat Cloud, and the ability to facilitate such a network.


By El Mostafa Bouhafa and Jacob Hess

Information and decision superiority cannot be achieved by a nation unilaterally. If the outcome of wars and battles is decided by the way a commander applies the “right type of force to the right targets at the right time with a rapidity the enemy cannot match,” then in today’s environment of multinational coalition building, the difficulty lies in optimizing a multi-domain command and control (MDC2) system among partner nations. In line with the principle of unity of effort, the more military efforts are coordinated, the more decisive and better those actions will be. Today’s increasingly dynamic operational environment requires a full spectrum of multinational capabilities that span across the domains, especially those that are typically very coalition heavy, such as peacekeeping missions and humanitarian assistance. In that light, the US military will continue to find itself operating in close coordination with a wide range of coalition partners. These partners may include traditional allies such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations, newer partners such as former Warsaw Pact members, developed and emergent states, or even ad-hoc coalition partners. This diversity requires coalition members to become part of a dynamic information-sharing system and a specific C2 network.

In an attempt to frame what this new C2 network would look like, the Air Force released the United States Air Force Combat Cloud Operating Concept in the spring of 2016. In this document, the Air Force describes the combat cloud as “…an overarching meshed network for data distribution and information sharing within a battlespace, where each authorized user, platform, or node transparently contributes and receives essential information and is able to utilize it across the full range of military operations.” The Combat Cloud represents the intellectual construct necessary to unify Air Force and Department of Defense efforts in pursuit of decision superiority and MDC2. To attain this, however, the Combat Cloud and associated network must exhibit critical attributes such as the ability to be self-forming, self-healing, gracefully degradable, and redundant. Under this construct, the ability to collect data and integrate it in an open, adaptive information system will significantly enhance C2 and operational agility for the US and its allies across the range of military operations (ROMO).

A transition to network-centric operations through a combined Combat Cloud that overcomes differences in tactics, training, and procedures (TTPs) will enhance unity of effort and ultimately lead to decision superiority in both US and coalition-led engagements of the future. It is critical that US partners be linked in both infrastructure and access to the Combat Cloud from the early phases of its creation and implementation. This will assist in identifying and overcoming the inevitable shortfalls in both hardware and software that can hinder operationalization. Furthermore, it will institute the framework whereby unity of effort can be streamlined through a timely, accurate, and relevant responsiveness which flows from the rapid, agile and appropriate collection and dissemination of information and orders. The concept of “every platform a sensor” is multiplied by the inclusion of coalition partners. Current systems, such as Link 16, provide only a small glimpse into the interoperability potential of coalition partners. Based upon nodes within aircraft, vehicles, satellites, combatants, sensors, and terminals, the Combat Cloud will not just be limited to exchanging tactical data, but will increase situational awareness and intelligence sharing, enhance MDC2, and intensify the effects each coalition partner brings to the operation.

The Combat Cloud enables flexibility at the tactical, operational, and strategic level. As stated in the USAF Combat Cloud Operating Concept, this will allow partner nations to efficiently adhere to the MDC2 systems and concepts utilized by the US in a much more streamlined fashion. A common system will allow any partner nation to quickly join or quit the network without any required configuration, reconfiguration, or additional and complicated settings or modifications to its own national systems. Seen in this light, coalition partners will begin to see the Combat Cloud as a solution to the problems of interconnectedness as opposed to simply another hurdle. By harnessing this dynamic information-sharing capability, MDC2 becomes streamlined at all levels, whether it be a small collection of organic assets undertaking a joint operation, or a large scale heterogeneous coalition made up with resources of many types. To that end, the Combat Cloud can enable the interconnected and resilient C2 systems required in the future, and permit not just the US, but its partners to achieve information and decision superiority.

For the Combat Cloud to be effective, it must exist in a common computing environment that permits the US and its coalition partners to share data, collaborate, plan, prepare, and execute operations using shared security classification levels. Therefore, security is paramount. Coalition partners will be reluctant to adhere to a C2-centric network which is not adequately strengthened against the inherent vulnerabilities of interconnectedness. The USAF Combat Cloud Operating Concept asserts that the system must be appropriately robust, effectively protected, and defended to prevent risks such as single point and collective combat failure. Moreover, the Combat Cloud’s risks do not stem only from external sources; many of the most critical challenges may arise from within, especially in terms of specific partner nations. Pakistan, for example, is both a key ally to the US in the fight against terrorism within Afghanistan, and at the same time a key ally of China. In this light, not all members of a US-led coalition can necessarily be considered universal allies and proper protocols must be instilled to ensure access is limited accordingly.

f35formationcaptionInteroperability is also required for a combined Combat Cloud. In the absence of compatible systems, laborious and inefficient workarounds have to be devised, often at some cost in coalition force effectiveness. A familiar example of interoperability challenges that currently exist is the incompatibility of software for force-level planning used by the US and NATO, known as the Contingency Theater Air Planning System (CTAPS) and the Interim CAOC Capability (ICC), respectively. To date, the only solution has been to manually redefine ATO messaging standards for communicating between the two systems, which is an incredibly cumbersome process. Moreover, within the CAF, the huge disparity in assets operated by the US and its partners such as the F-35, Eurofighter, Typhoon, Rafale, E-7A Wedgetail AWACS, Eurohawk RQ-4, and other platforms shows that interoperability will continue to present significant challenges. However, transforming all these individual weapon systems into collaborative elements of an interdependent coalition force is precisely what the Combat Cloud can accomplish and is a prerequisite to achieving information and decision superiority.

A final key requirement for successful integration of coalition partners in a combined Combat Cloud is an increase in common training standards and operational tactics amongst partner nations. Requirements and TTPs must be agreed upon and formalized through inter-military agreements and training exercises in a highly deliberate fashion. Well-defined standards and procedures will enable rapid and efficient implementation of the Combat Cloud and increase its utility for all involved throughout the ROMO.

In conclusion, the USAF effort at a new MDC2 system, colloquially called the Combat Cloud, gives US and international coalitions forces a chance to begin to acquire a “system of systems” which allows for greater inter-coalition and inter-domain coordination and C2. The United States will not, in the foreseeable future, fight unilaterally, and as such, a coalition will need to be able to operate as a unified force. If the US is operating via the Combat Cloud and our allies are not, the ability to synchronize and allow for MDC2 across all components and allied capabilities is very much in doubt.

El Mostafa Bouhafa is a Major in the Royal Moroccan Air Force and Jacob Hess is a Major in the United States Air Force. Both are recent graduates from the USAF Air Command and Staff College.

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

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