The Combat Cloud Across the Range of Military Operations: Interagency Coordination

By Shaun Williams and Jacob Hess

A recent policy paper published by the Mitchell Institute stated, “the 21st century demands a new, more agile, and integrated operational framework for the employment of military power, and a shift away from the domain focused structure of segregated land, air, and sea warfare.” In an attempt to define what the Command and Control (C2) of this “agile, and integrated…framework” would look like, the Air Force released the United States Air Force Combat Cloud Operating Concept, which defines 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 Multi-Domain Command and Control (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 military and other US governmental agencies across the range of military operations.

By treating every platform as a sensor, the Combat Cloud MDC2 paradigm will give decision makers a reliable, secure, and dynamic system that ensures the effects are the focus, versus the actual platform utilized.  The days of extensive stove-piping of information by various organizations within the defense enterprise, such as the intelligence community (notorious in compartmentalizing information), must be fundamentally restructured around a concept of information sharing, not hoarding.  If the first part of the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that the days of interagency competition must be replaced with cooperation if the US defense enterprise is to remain relevant and efficient in the post-industrial age.  The Combat Cloud provides just such an architecture to operationalize this concept.

When looking at the operability of the Combat Cloud in concert with agencies both within and outside the DoD, the Air Force can lead the way in providing the framework to ensure advances in C2 and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) are available to be shared with all relevant agencies.  The sharing of information on these platforms is beneficial and critical in exploiting the disparate pieces of intelligence required to defeat the enemies of the 21st century, both state and non-state.  In the fight against violent extremist organization (VEOs), real-time communication and C2 within multiple domains are critical to effective control of the battlespace, and the Combat Cloud precisely enables this effect.  Leveraging the advances in communication and information-sharing technologies that have come to fruition over the last 10 years, such as the Combat Cloud, will keep the US ahead of potential adversaries like China and Russia.

Take for instance, an organization such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  In most matters of information storage and sharing, the DIA is still operating in an industrial era mindset.  Information is typically stored on in-house secured networks, and if it needs to be passed to another agency it requires a lengthy process of downloading, vetting, and often transcribing.  The Combat Cloud will enable users within the DIA (and truly the defense enterprise as a whole) to develop an Information Technology (IT) infrastructure that is fully functional with outside agencies, consolidating data and information on secure yet accessible networks, and ultimately reducing the time necessary to retrieve and pass vital information.  This will of course require very complex algorithms capable of filtering, sorting, and archiving data in a way that is relevant and retrievable, but by making it accessible across the interagency enterprise, the number of highly trained analysts available to interpret and examine the data also goes up.  This will also be aided by advances in metadata processing, a field that will continue to be more critical to efficiency and success in the information age.

Heavy manpower will continue to be required to ensure efficient processing, exploitation, and dissemination of data.  In 2014 alone, Air Force units generated approximately 1,600 hours of video per day, and the number of humans required to process, exploit, and disseminate this data is upwards of 100,000. Sophisticated algorithms used in conjunction with the Combat Cloud will be pivotal in sorting through the masses of data, but will give agencies the ability to share relevant information, reduce redundancies, and enable decision superiority across the DOD.

In conclusion, the USAF effort to create a new MDC2 system, colloquially called the Combat Cloud, gives the USAF a chance to begin to acquire a “system of systems” that allows for greater inter-agency and inter-domain coordination and C2. The current method of stove-piping information in individual Services or intelligence agencies will no longer allow for the adaptability or responsiveness necessary to combat VEOs nor future peers in state-on-state multi-domain combat. If adopted across the entirety of the US DOD and IC enterprise, Combat Cloud would provide a framework and a system of systems to begin to break down the stovepipes and push rapid decision quality information and C2 guidance across the players.

Shawn Williams is employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency 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 US Government.

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