Battlefield Tech

Chinese threats means the Pentagon needs new C4ISR systems

For the United States to meet the goals laid out in the National Defense Strategy, especially in Asia, and to realize President Donald Trump’s vision of an open Indo-Pacific, the Department of Defense’s battlefield technology must undergo significant changes, according to a Center for a New American Security report released Jan. 28.

The report, an independent assessment mandated by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, proposed the revamping of C4ISR systems as they remain “brittle in the face of Chinese cyberattacks, electronic warfare and long-range strikes.”

The Pentagon’s C4ISR capabilities have fallen behind technologically, as they were developed “in an era when competitors or adversaries could not attack U.S. assets in space or at long ranges,” the report found. At the same time, a 2019 Department of Defense’s report on China’s military and security developments found that country has prioritized military capabilities with disruptive potential, including hypersonic weapons, counterspace capabilities, artificial intelligence and C4ISR advanced robotics.

Thus far, the Department of Defense has been able to develop countermeasures against China’s abilities, said Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at CNAS and one of the authors of the report.

“As the threat continues to get more sophisticated, these [countermeasures] will likely lose their effectiveness,” Dougherty said. “This necessitates building a new architecture that is designed around resiliency, kill webs, and graceful degradation.”

While under attack, U.S. systems sometimes fail to have any connectivity and have sporadic dial-up speeds. Instead, they should still have some level of communication even while the attack is going on, even if this means at lower bandwidths.

To strengthen its systems, the report recommended, the U.S. military should develop space capabilities resistant to kinetic attacks, synthetic training environments for U.S. forces to practice C4ISR operations, systems that can transmit data via multiple pathways and surveillance systems that can avoid being detected.

A recent project by RAND found that, while the Department of Defense maintains an advantage in airspace penetration capabilities, it remains vulnerable to air base attacks and Chinese anti-surface warfare.

An initial system with these developments could be in place in the next decade if the Department of Defense and armed services create a basic system and improve it over time, Dougherty said.

“If, as we have done in the past, we wait around for a ‘perfect’ set of requirements to develop an ‘objective’ future system, we could see this take 15-20 years, at which point China will likely have far surpassed us in this competition,” he said.

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