What It Takes to Win: Succeeding in 21st Century Battle Network Competitions

"In many cases, disrupting, delaying, or harassing the enemy may be sufficient to achieve one’s most important military objectives."

Success in war is often measured by territory gained and enemies killed. These metrics, however, may not reflect what is really most useful in winning a conflict or military competition. In many cases, disrupting, delaying, or harassing the enemy may be sufficient to achieve one’s most important military objectives. In the short-term, the side using these approaches may be able to gain a temporary advantage toward a larger goal; in the long-term, these approaches may impose significant costs on an enemy in exchange for a relatively small investment.

For example, an air defense system can achieve the objective of reducing the number and intensity of air attacks by compelling the attacker to shift an increasing portion of its aerial effort to support missions such as jamming air defense radars or attacking air defense systems–even if the air defenses only infrequently shoot down enemy aircraft. Similarly, anti-submarine warfare forces can achieve their objective of protecting ships by disrupting enemy submarine operations and pushing them out of the fight rather than by sinking large numbers of them.

Reconsidering our metrics isn’t just about making war cheaper, easier, or less lethal.  It is much more about about identifying what we’re really trying to achieve in each area of a military campaign and designing the “battle network” to pursue those objectives. This seems intuitive, but in the midst of conflict it often is not. In a new study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), we found that American, allied, and opposing militaries often pursued destruction of the enemy even when it was platform, weapon, and time intensive and not completely necessary to achieve their overall goals. This didn't just increase the cost for each enemy killed, it also shifted effort and attention away from other approaches that would have aligned more closely with the force’s overall objectives. This may have prolonged conflicts and left belligerents less prepared for the next phase of the competition.

To arrive at these conclusions, we analyzed historical data for two long-running battle network competitions from World War I to the present. The first is the competition between submarines and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) battle networks and the second is the competition between air attack and air defenses. We chose these two competitions for several reasons. Most importantly, they are ongoing and are highly relevant to current and future U.S. military operations. Of almost equal significance is the degree to which the competitions are shaped by fundamental attributes of submarines and aircraft respectively. This makes it likely that many lessons from past conflicts will retain relevance well into the future. Finally, there was sufficient data available to assess them.

What is a Battle Network?

Electronic network communications play a large and increasingly important role in modern life and, in particular, modern military operations. Over the past two decades, the decreasing cost, increasing capability, and widespread availability of network communications have transformed the way many of us work, shop, maintain contact with friends and loved ones, as well as how, when, and where we access news and information. Widespread use of electronic communications, however, is well over a century old. Successful electrical telegraph systems emerged during the 1840s. Invention of the telephone followed in the 1870s, and by 1900 over 1.3 million telephones were in use in the United States. During the first decade of the twentieth century, radio, or “wireless telegraphy” as they were known at the time, was developed. By the beginning of World War I, the armies of the Great Powers used field telephone networks and radios to transmit information and orders to ground and naval forces.

The advent of radio communications enabled militaries to distribute target acquisition sensors, target localization sensors, command and control (C2) elements, weapons, and or weapon platforms around the battlefield. Dispersing these functions in a battle network across a large area has a number of potential advantages and can greatly increase their effectiveness. For example, networking allows weapon platforms to engage targets they cannot detect or track by leveraging the capabilities of distant sensor systems. Networking can also give commanders a broader view of the overall situation, as viewed from a number of disparate sensors, enhancing their ability to prioritize missions across a theater and better assess the effects of previous actions. Before radio, commanders, spotters, and weapons had to be close enough to communicate by human voice, bugle calls, and, if weather and lighting permitted, flag signals. Dispersal options were constrained by the limits of human hearing and eyesight.

The development of indirect artillery fire techniques late in the nineteenth century is a good illustration of the advantages of fielding a battle network. Although not thought of as a battle network at the time, over the course of World War I, artillery formations of the major powers rapidly developed all the characteristics of a battle network. They used forward observers on the ground and in tethered balloons (sensors) to find and identify targets, fire control centers to confirm and prioritize targets (C2), and dispersed field artillery batteries (weapons) to engage targets. By linking each element with field telephone lines, each side was able to locate and attack the opponent’s targets before they could move out of range.