Transitioning from the kill chain to the kill web

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: My last post outlined the strategic reviews and national defense priorities that sit on top of the kill chain. Defense planners at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are now looking at transitioning to a concept they've dubbed the kill web.

Before we get into the , we need to re-visit how we organized the warfare models in my last post. We organized them, in a sequence, and found that each warfare domain (land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum) has a unique and independent loop (observe, orient, decide, act).

From there, we discovered that the “Act” segment of those OODA loops is actually that specific domain’s kill chain. And we observed that those domain-specific kill chains are sequential processes that operate at different speeds. So the combined kill chain, of all the domains, can only operate as fast as the slowest one. That characteristic goes against what General John Jumper suggests, that we need to execute our complete kill chain in ten minutes or less.

How do we solve this problem? First, we need to overlap the kill chains of each domain. We smeared the domains together and eliminated the stovepiping in a master warfare model in the previous article. If we do that in battle, we remove the dependencies where one domain’s kill chain (land) is waiting for another domain’s kill chain (sea) to complete it’s slower OODA loop. How do we do that? With concepts like sensor-to-shooter, cross-domain fires, multi-domain warfare, and cross-domain warfare. Those are all different words for the same thing: overlapping the different kill chains and stovepipes. From my reading, as mentioned above, DARPA has better words for this concept — the kill web.

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The Army has the weapons, OODA loop, and kill chain for land-based problems. The Navy has the weapons, OODA loop, and kill chain for sea-based problems. The Air Force has the weapons, OODA loop, and kill chain for air-based problems. There’s also space, cyberspace, and (EM spectrum) with their own weapons, OODA loops, and kill chains. We need to replace these two-dimensional kill chains (the static linear sequence of events) with a six-dimensional kill web (connect all six domains of warfare into a dynamic network). How do we do that? By communicating targeting data collected in one domain to all the other domains instantly. The words for this are “shared situational awareness.”

This is a complex topic, so it’s best that we use some examples to show how it’s supposed to work. Let’s say an Air Force F-35 flying at 30K feet detects an enemy tank column moving toward an Army position on the ground below. The Army unit has short-range weapons like the FGM-148 Javelin missiles to hit the tanks, but they only have a range of about 3 miles. The enemy tanks need to be neutralized long before they get that close. A few miles offshore of the Army unit is a Navy destroyer with cruise missile onboard. So, the F-35 pilot sends what is on his screen (targeting data) to the destroyer’s combat system, loading the coordinates for the tank targets into the missiles. He then takes control of the missile launchers and fires those cruise missiles from the ship, remotely. In other words, the F-35 pilot fires the Navy’s weapons at the target threatening the Army. This example also defines what “sensor-to-shooter” means.

The Army and Navy are working together on this kill web concept in the Pacific with cross-domain fires. A Navy ship detects an enemy coastal patrol boat close to shore on its radar. It sends the radar images (targeting data) to an Army missile unit on land through a SATCOM [satellite communications] connection. The Army radar can’t see the patrol boat directly because they are behind a hill. The Navy ship takes control of the Army’s fire control system, launches the missiles over the hill, and destroys the enemy patrol boat. Here, we have the Navy controlling and firing the Army’s weapons at a threat to the Navy ship, remotely. The Army and the Air Force are also working on similar cross-domain battle plans.

There are many more scenarios we could explore here, but you get the general idea from these simple examples. The Army, Navy, and Air Force will have (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) in the battle zone. Our satellite forces will have additional imaging intelligence, our cyber-guys will be tapping into the enemy’s communications, and our electronic warfare guys will be jamming enemy .

Once that ISR network is up and running, and connected to each weapon system, anything that comes into the web is detected by one or more of those ISR systems. That’s the “find and identify” part of the combined kill chain (CKC). Then those ISR systems “fix and track” the targets and share their targeting data with all the weapons in the web. That’s the second phase of the CKC. At this point, the system will decide which weapons in the network are suitable for that particular target, and are within firing range. One of the ISR systems in the web takes control of those weapons, wherever they may be, and executes the “fire” phase of the CKC. Reconnaissance UAVs flying overhead can send damage assessment images to the ISR systems in the web. If there are “squirters” (targets not destroyed in the initial barrage that run for cover), the UAVs can take them out with their Hellfire missiles. That’s the “finish” phase of the CKC. And, the UAVs can survey the final damage and complete the “feedback” phase. Start to finish, we are talking about minutes here.

What’s interesting to me about the kill web concept is that our forces don’t need to go looking for targets all the time. Like a spider, we set up the web around a battle space and wait for the enemy to show up. Once they enter the kill web, they can’t get out. One of the tenants of warfare is to isolate your enemy and restrict his movements. If he can’t maneuver and position his resources for offense, he’s restricted to the space inside the web which makes him a perfect target for our missiles and bombs from the air. And by its very nature, a kill web will present a lot of “targets of opportunity” for our precision weapons. Think about a kill web around North Korea or Iran in a ground war and you’ll see the possibilities of this concept. The kill web can shrink the kill zone in land wars, or expand it in large scale sea wars, against foes like Russia or China. There’s lots of strategic and tactical moving parts to the kill web, and how it changes warfare. If you want to dig into this subject in detail, you can start with the Modern War Institute at West Point. <> There are some good diagrams of a battlefield kill web with all the players identified in the articles.

Now you understand the kill web concept. It’s just the military’s implementation of Metcalfe’s Law: the more devices you add to the network, the more powerful and valuable the network becomes. However, there’s a lot of work to be done before we can do what the scenarios above suggest. For decades, all the different services’ systems were never designed with the capability of being integrated into a kill web network. Army systems can’t talk to Navy systems. Navy systems can’t talk to Air Force systems. They were all stovepipe designs. Many new communication (COMM) systems have to be designed, tested, and installed on existing platforms, across all the services, before everything is connected.

Also consider the rivalry between the services as they fight for money in the annual NDAA (DoD defense budget). Any money mandated for common communications network equipment means less money going into new weapons platforms or pet projects in each service. Deciding the technical details of the common network architecture, protocols, and data structures will be fun to watch. Just think about the size of the new radios: airplanes don’t have much space to put the gear, compared to Navy ships. And airplanes, ground combat vehicles, and ships all use different voltages to power their equipment.

Additionally, the radios in the kill web network will have different environmental requirements. Aircraft electronic systems must be flight qualified for high altitude-low air pressure, shock and vibration, and temperature extremes. Army systems have even greater requirements for shock and vibration, wider temperature extremes, sand, dust, dirt, ice, snow, rain, and humidity. Navy electronics are kept in nice air conditioned rooms on the ship. The biggest environmental threat to Navy electronics is a newly minted ensign with a cup of coffee in his hand. So, one radio for all the services isn’t appropriate.

There are also operational issues that muddy the water. The F-35 was designed to collect and pass targeting information to drones, F-15s, F-16s, and F-22s in battle space. The F-22 can receive targeting data from other sources, but was never designed to send any targeting data. It was the first 5G super-stealth fighter (with a radar cross section of 0.0001 square meters), and sending out any electronic signals would disclose its presence to the enemy. So, there’s discussion about whether stealth aircraft should be transmitting any signals that defeat their invisibility. Like everything technical, complex, and political, the kill web will come together slowly. The easy parts will be completed first.

If hooking all our military platforms together in an operational kill web is a rats nest of problems, how can we hook our allies’ platforms into our network? They need to be connected if they go into battle with us. All the other NATO-country platforms are old, antiquated, and obsolete. So, the best place to start our investigation is with fighter jets. That’s the topic we’ll chew on in our next installment.