Military command, control and communications

Caveat lector:

  • First, I have been retired from the Canadian Army for longer than more than ¼ of all living Canadians have even been alive; many things have changed since I served. On the other hand I was, some may think I still am, something of an expert on the management and use of the electromagnetic spectrum ~ the base for all radio and radar (including satellite) systems; and
  • Second, this is a bit of a “on-the-one-hand” and then  “on-the-other” sort of post. I helped to introduce some of the radio/radar based systems that the Canadian Forces still use in operations, today, but I also, fairly consistently, argued against placing too much faith in them.

I have been a constant critic, in these pages, and in other fora, of the Canadian military’s command and control (C²) superstructure. I believe it is overly complex and bureaucratic, too top heavy and it is ‘fat,’ even, I have said, morbidly obese. I think Canada has far, far too many admirals and generals, almost all (except for, perhaps, a half dozen, at most) being one or two ranks higher than is needed for the job they do, in too many headquarters that do little of value except talk to at each other. I believe our C² has more do do with trying to emulate our (equally grossly obese) neighbour to the south than with meeting the needs of Canada.

The solution to the C² obesity problem is about 99% political … it needs a minister who will direct the Chief of the Defence Staff to chop something between ⅓ and ½ of the admirals and generals and commodores and Navy captains and Army and Air Force colonels and many of the HQs in which they sit. Of course that will require a massive (and overdue) revision to the entire military remuneration system so that admirals and colonels and corporals and privates, too, all get paid, appropriately well, for what they do for Canada. That needs to be agreed, by the prime minister, before the Minister of National Defence orders give the order to “chop.”

But that’s the top level problem and I have, I think, ranted on enough about it … my readers will either agree or not.

I believe, as I said the other day, that there is also a serious problem at the operational and tactical levels of the military, and it involves more than just command and control (C²), it involves the command, control and communications (C³) systems and, especially, 1200px-Gig_ov1the degree to which they are reliant on modern electronics and, especially, yet again, the electro-magnetic spectrum to establish a global information network upon which the military is nearly totally reliant. When, not if,  “nearly totally reliant” becomes over-reliant, as I believe is now the case, and is most pronounced, the military sometimes uses the acronym C4I, meaning command, control, communications, computers and intelligence or worse, C4Iwhich means command, control, communications, computers, intelligence 1d87d868-c4d5-425e-81b6-c27ae5835365and interoperability according to the US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The mere fact that we seem to want to assign fancy acronyms to a few aluminium and plastic boxes full of solid sate circuits seems to me to indicate that we don’t actually understand that, beneath the blinking lights and flashy displays is a process than, in many respects, is little changed from what we did 75 years ago. The need to manage and handle information is unchanged, the technology we can use to do those things has changed.*

The problem, as I see it, is that the modern military is fascinated with what technology can do ~ and it can do a lot of really useful things ~ but are less willing to understand its limitations.

Don’t get me wrong: I think computers are wonderful; they make many mundane but time consuming tasks easy to accomplish in the blink of an eye. Ditto for radios and radars which seem to erase distance as show us things that used to be invisible. But all technology comes at a price … sometimes, as in the world of electronic warfare (EW), the price is fairly easy to understand: if you say anything on your radio then a modestly sophisticated enemy can, quickly and accurately, locate your exact position and send artillery or sir strikes your way; or the enemy can ‘spoof’ your communications networks, feeding false information into it and spreading confusion. The enemy can, also, use the radio spectrum to gain access to (hack) your computer network and make you deceive yourself. Or the threats may be physical, like the anti-satellite networks, such as the Chinese are developing, which according to Lieutenant General Jay Raymond of the United Stares Air Force, mean that ““soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk.”” Our, Canadian and allied, national surveillance and air defence systems use satellite networks as do our strategic command and control (C²) networks which manage Canada’s armed forces at home and overseas. Even the most modern “networked” systems might be rendered deaf and blind.

That does not mean we should go back to pre-Battle of the Atlantic or Battle of Britain days … not at all; but it does mean that we, citizens, military leaders and political decision makers should understand that technology, while giving us immense new powers, remains, always, vulnerable. Essentially, there is no “free lunch,” ever, in military command, control and communications (C³). Everything comes at a price … everything.

The US led West should continue to invest in and equip its forces with the best, most innovative technology that money can buy … but, and this is a Huge BUT, that technology should overlay, not replace, a simple, robust command, control, and communications (C³) or even a (C4) infrastructure that is understood and can still be operated, manually, by well trained officers and sailors, soldiers and air force members, when, not if, the electromagnetic systems are jammed, or hacked or, simply, suffer from too much mutual interference ~ because sometimes our own systems threaten and even “attack” one another, just because we pile too many of them one atop the other.

Modern military commanders should be willing and able, even comfortable, giving personal, written orders to subordinates who are about to sail away or to deploy half way across the world and trust that their orders, and the intent behind their orders, will Fix-Windows-10-Blue-Screen-of-Death-BSOD-and-Internal-Power-Errorbe understood and obeyed even (especially) when communications fail and when their computers show the dreaded “blue screen of death.” That’s more and more difficult today, no one, least of al me, wants to fly across the ocean or the vast Arctic wastelands without state of the art communications and navigation systems … but it can be done, when, if necessary, our predecessors proved that.

Operational and tactical command, control and communications (C³) systems must be Simonetti5robust and survivable … commanders, especially army formation (brigade and division) commanders must not be tied to large, static, vulnerable HQs just because a “higher” headquarters doesn’t trust local commanders to do what’s best … in other words the legacy of American C² and C³ which was spawned in Vietnam 50 years ago must be put aside and replaced by something even older and better.

Once again, this is not a call to wipe out 75 years of progress and go back to the 1940s, but it is a cry for commanders, Australian, British, Canadian, Danish and so on, to think and even to be a lot more like the bold, combat leaders, e.g. Rommel and Slim, in the 1940s, and a lot less like the technological managers, e.g. Westmorland in the 1960s and Petraeus in the 2000s. This does not mean not using the best tools available, including exploiting the vast potential of modern electronics and of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it does mean understanding all of the technological solutions on offer, appreciating their capabilities and limitations, and, always, being able to command, effectively, in combat, with only limited technological support. It means placing tactical skill and imagination above information management, technology and handling;* it means commanding from the front, not being tied to a large, static HQ filled with computers and big screen displays; it means using tested procedures in battle, rather than adopting the latest flavour of the month from our biggest ally; in fact it means placing leadership above any sort of management.

One of the problems that I suspect exists is a lack of technical training amongst senior military officers. I think that the basic officer training, especially for combatant officers, needs to have more technology in the programme: would-be ship’s captains need to understand more and more about engines and radars and weapon guidance; embryonic infantry battalion and armoured regiment commanding officers need to understand more about the technology behind their tanks, APCs, mortars and radios; and budding fighter squadron COs need to know more about engines, radars and weapons. That training needs to be expanded at the captain/major (Navy lieutenant/lieutenant commander) level ~ the major joint services staff course needs to be two years (eight semesters) long: one year of joint operational staff work and one year of military technology.

Another problem is that there is still, I believe, a lack of trust amongst too many senior combatant officers in the views of their peers with advanced technical training. I, personally, heard too many admirals and generals say, to me and my colleagues, “I’m just a simple soldier, don’t get too technical” when, in fact the senior officer concerned needed to understand the balance of the risks and rewards that any given technology offered ~ it wasn’t that imagesAdmiral X or General Y wasn’t smart and adequately educated; he (now she or he) just didn’t want to have to process the information they needed; they wanted a red light vs. green light signal, and had little patience for amber lights. It is a matter of trust, again. Many senior officers are quite happy to trust a subordinate to say “yes” or “no” but they are afraid that their own superiors will not trust their judgment on complex, often technical matters which almost always have amber lights and grey areas.  There is a corollary to this problem: too many admirals and generals put too much trust in retired admirals and generals (and retired Navy captains and Army and Air Force colonels) who are now in the defence sales and marketing realm, offering bright, shiny, new things that they promise will solve all the Canadian Forces’ problems. I was offered one of those jobs when I retired; fortunately I was also offered a job managing one industry’s national technical standards board and that was much more satisfying work for me.

Good leaders understand the tools they use to exercise good command and control: how to command and how to exercise control. Good leaders understand the capabilities and limitations of the people, procedures, facilities, resources and communications they use to command and control their forces; they are masters of technology, not slaves to it.


* Many years ago a very wise, very senior officer explained to me that information, in the military and, he thought, in almost any enterprise, has three aspects:  information management, information technology and information handling. Information management, he said, was (is) everyone’s business: the infantry section commander in combat, the pilot in his fighter and the staff officers in various HQs, in ships, in buildings and even in aircraft, need to understand what information they need to do their jobs, where to find it and how to sift the wheat from the chaff. Information technology, he explained, is, generally, the business of a relatively few technical specialists who adapt it to the needs of combat and support forces. Information handing, he said, is a fairly narrow business that involves picking up information wherever it is, in a small, remote sensor, on a radar screen, in a thick, written intelligence report, transforming it into the best means for ‘transport,’ moving it to the places it is needed, quickly and accurately, and then transforming it, again, into the form which is best suited to the recipients who will manage it and, ultimately, use it. There are three aspects he said and they should not be mixed together: everyone needs to be an information manager, a few need to be information technology implementers or providers and fewer still need to be information handlers. The definition of a command and control system he told us, is the people, and procedures (information management), the facilities and resources (which includes information technology) and communications (information handling) which a commander uses to direct his (or her) forces and fight and win, his or her battle.



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