Skip to main content

#War: Is the enemy more agile, adaptable & situationally aware than us?

#War: Is the enemy more agile, adaptable & situationally aware than us?

The continued success of the Australian Army Blog is good news – especially since our adversaries  have been blogging for years. And while we in the West are guilty of dismissing enriched media as the domain of cyber geeks and Twilight fans, our opponents have quite literally been developing ‘killerapps’.  

It is perfectly understandable that Western militaries dismiss enriched media, after all, its use in calling people to action has rarely amounted to more than “slactivism”. Over 1.3 million ‘likes’ didn’t lead to the capture of Kony2012, and even the most powerful tweeters have been unable to #BringBackOurGirls.

But many emerging players have not been so quick to dismiss this new technology, nor have they relegated it to the role of propaganda, instead its use has evolved from an information operations tool to a collection, targeting and command and control (C2) system. Al Qaeda’s use of social media to garner moral (and financial) support since its inception seems crude compared to its use by the Syrian Army in kill or capture missions. More recently Libyan revolutionaries conducted air-ground coordination and targeting against regime positions using geo-tags while the Mumbai terror attacks’C2 was provided in real-time, via twitter, from hundreds of miles away. Given that Amazon currently uses enriched media integrated with cheap technology to deliver books; its use by combatants to deliver kinetic effects is imminent. Enriched media is becoming entrenched as a durable and pervasive characteristic of the modern battle-space.

The face of future battle: Accessible, Agile and Auto-synchronising

The next battlefield, David Kilcullen argues, will be Urban, Littoral and Connected. While the Australian Army has made an intellectual and materiel investment in preparing for the challenges of urban terrain and amphibious manoeuvre, it has yet to fully grasp the implications of an auto-synchronising, hyper-connected threat. The 21st Century has seen the intersection of auto-synchronous human networks (of the sort described by Kilcullen, Ferguson et al.) and highly accessible, agile technology. This convergence of human and technological factors is already being harnessed by anarray of actors as a force multiplier.

In the summer of 2010 a small group of activists set about overcoming security forces to penetrate police lines and disrupt Toronto’s G20 meeting. Protest leaders used off-the-shelf micro-UAVs jerry-rigged with video cameras to live stream full-motion video, to a series of distributed command nodes in order to develop a geo-referenced common operating picture. This capability, still an aspiration for the Australian Army, was fused with human intelligence to identify police positions, routes and reserves.

These examples demonstrate not only the low cost of such technology, but also its accessibility to all levels of society. In addition to their low cost, the low degree of technical proficiency required to integrate three disparate off-the-shelf systems also makes it highly accessible, as does the existential necessity for the state to maintain the physical network. Egypt learnt the hard way that the sudden interruption of mass communication is likely to rapidly accelerate revolutionary mobilisation. When information about protests was freely available, most individuals were able to stay passive but remain informed, but when disconnected people had to leave the house to stay informed making them far more likely to join the movement – and with a new found source of grievance.

Protest leaders used Twitter hashtags to create ‘flash mobs’, low level protests by second tier supporters, to compel security forces to commit to multiple concurrent incidents. This method of control allowed the leadership to remain concealed and highly distributed, while manoeuvre elements were horizontally organised by local event controllers rather than being pushed by hierarchical structures. Such auto-synchronization was applied in a more sophisticated and deadly way by the controllers of the Mumbai attacks who used Twitter to identify victim locations and direct terrorists towards them.

In Toronto high levels of protestor situational awareness made it easy to detect where and when the police reserve was decisively committed. Blackberry private message groups, favoured by London rioters and Libyan commanders alike, were used to direct the protestors’ reserve through the ensuing gap and straight into the secure ministerial facility. The superior agility provided by enriched media meant 20 000 security personnel were overwhelmed by fewer than half that number of protestors.

While its use to date has been predominantly in sub-conventional or insurgent actions, enriched media is already being integrated by major actors in the hybridised conflicts that are being fought as this article is written. Technical solutions will be necessary to address some of the questions that accessible and agile technology poses, such as:

  • How do we fuse the high volumes of classified data the next generation of ADF platforms (JSF, Land 400, Wedgetail, etc.) collect with the unclassified, ungoverned manoeuvre space of the World Wide Web?
  • How does Army respond to the array of tier-1 & 2 UAS operating in urban terrain?
  • Does the Army have the technical and language skills to operate in this environment?

The more important challenges of a connected battle-space are however, cognitive and conceptual rather than technical. As the French discovered technology, in the form of better armour and a high velocity gun, can defeat a tank but not a blitzkrieg. Agile combatants have already begun to use enriched media to understand their environments, their opponents and, perhaps most importantly, their supporters. This has afforded them decision superiority while bringing the cause and conduct of a conflict closer together.

How then, does the Army bound a conflict where intelligence is crowd sourced globally and C2 is exercised across borders? How does the land force fight in complex terrain where it cannot assume superior situational awareness? The Army will need to address these questions to avoid being dislocated by a more agile, aware foe.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.