A Lesson of Military Tactics Failing To Keep Up With Technological Change

Global Hawk RPA

Global Hawk RPA

“Progress is impossible without change, and those that cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”  –George Bernard Shaw

We are in the midst of the Golden Age of Space. Revolutionary technologies are being introduced right now that will change how we communicate, relate, and see the world. And the U.S. government must change its concept of how to use these space capabilities to take advantage of new technologies and stay ahead of potential adversaries.

History provides many examples when military tactics failed to adjust to changing technologies. One comes from 1849, when Claude-Etienne Minié, a French army officer, wanted to make the muzzle loading rifle more reliable. Minié designed an oblong cylindrical bullet with a point at one end and a hollow base that expanded when fired, significantly increasing accuracy and lethality over much longer distances as compared to its round, lead-ball predecessor.

This was a military game-changer. Long held strategies, tactics, and concepts of operations that had been developed for the shorter range and awful accuracy of the muzzle ball no longer applied. But the military strategists of the time did not adapt.

Even after the British used the better bullet design with devastating effects against the Russians in the Crimean War 1853-1856, these lessons were largely ignored. By the time of the American Civil War in 1861, both Union and Confederate forces were using the “Minié ball” but had not abandoned the tactics from the American Revolutionary War that called for tight formations of men which would approach to within 50-100 yards of each other before firing.

The problem was that the Minié bullet could now hit targets accurately at 400 yards. This made these tactics practically suicidal and contributed to the high death toll of the Civil War.

This reluctance to change tactics was not limited to the American military. The lessons from the American Civil War were also largely ignored by Europe, contributing to the staggering casualty rates in the early phases of World War I in 1914 – a half century after the American Civil War ended!

Large organizations are resistant to change. But the lesson here is that a delay in updating concepts of operations to current technology can have devastating results.

Today we see a revolution in satellite technology. High Throughput Satellites (HTS), such as Intelsat EpicNG, provide an estimated 300-400 percent improvement in throughput over traditional wide beam satellites. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, such as OneWeb, have very low latency and target speeds of 4G+ — 10x faster than the targeted 512kbps of other planned LEO satellites.

To face the challenges of the future, the U.S. government and its military should work with the commercial space industry to understand how to best integrate this technology and change concepts of operations quickly to leverage these new capabilities. Today’s standard of two to four years to change CONOPS and update airworthiness, even for a software patch, are too long.

A good example of leveraging this technology is by making better use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs). It is time to think beyond the “Dull, Dirty and Dangerous” justification for RPA missions:

  • Start by making RPAs essential tools for immediate, responsive ISR supporting any warfighter mission – from combat to humanitarian.
  • Instead of settling for the current 2-4 Mbps from RPA feeds, planners should think of bandwidth throughputs of 10 Mbps by using HTS. 50 Mbps is feasible by using more efficient waveforms (available now) and even faster speeds in the future.
  • These high throughputs will enable a broad range of different sensors tailorable to the unique mission requirements from traditional electro-optical to hyperspectral imaging, and wide-area, persistent surveillance. Video resolution beyond HD to UHD is possible.
  • With this robust bandwidth throughput, RPAs can operate effectively as airborne relays and command and control enablers.
  • It is not only RPAs. On the ground, this increased bandwidth can enable mobile Wi-Fi hot spots along with Bluetooth wireless tools that can support monitoring body cameras and other “wearables” displaying what every soldier sees. The technology can also monitor their vital functions and locations in real-time, useful for training as well as post-event analysis.  Achieving the goal of “every soldier as a sensor” is within reach.

The lesson of the Minié ball still resonates today. Our adversaries are leveraging new technologies now and we must adapt our military thinking and CONOPS faster to adjust to the demands of the modern battlefield.

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