Can the military harness the true potential of the Internet of Things?


In the 1990s, the US Department of Defense proposed a new military doctrine called Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). The goal was to integrate emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures to enhance the Army’s combat capabilities. To achieve this goal, it is essential to transform information into combat power. The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to all devices that today are connected to the Internet and that share and collect data. Real-time data collection and its analysis using artificial intelligence (AI) is the main feature of IoT. Thus, the military application of IoT may be a watershed moment for network-centric warfare.

Network-Centric Warfare doctrine seeks the integration of three domains: the physical domain, where events took place and where operations are conducted; the information domain, where data is transmitted and stored; and the cognitive domain, where data is processed and analyzed. DS Alberts and other experts on the subject defined Network-Centric Warfare as “an information superiority-based concept of operations that generates increased combat power by networking sensors, decision-makers, and shooters to achieve shared awareness, increased command speed, a higher rate of operations, greater lethality, increased survivability, and a degree of self-synchronization. Essentially, NCW translates information superiority into combat power by effectively connecting knowledgeable entities in the battlespace. This military doctrine sparked a revolution in military affairs.

NCW brings many benefits to the table. It improves situational awareness at all levels of the command structure. This in turn increases the speed of execution, as even the smallest tactical unit has the information. It can reduce collateral damage during a battle. At the logistics level, NCW can provide real-time data on material supply need and can coordinate effectively to streamline supply chains. It also helps in formulating joint force structures due to real-time information sharing from the tactical and strategic levels and a better communication channel that improves the capabilities of command and control structures.

An example of NCW in action is Operation Iraqi Freedom, undertaken by the United States and its allies. Although numerically weaker, the United States and its allies have trampled the Iraqi forces with their technologically advanced weapons and warfare systems. Advance information on important military targets via satellite and GPS combined with sensor-gunner integration has increased weapon accuracy. Additionally, instant communication, along with GPS and laser targeting, provided the ability to call in airstrikes at specific locations at any time by ground forces. The K-Web, or wall of knowledge, was one of the most important elements of this war. It was a large-screen display board that contained information about each combat and support unit. It was used effectively for planning, briefing and executing plans by accumulating all possible data. These are just a few of the systems that changed the whole idea of ​​warfare and unleashed the power of technology.

However, there are a few shortcomings with NCW that need to be addressed to further exploit the potential of this revolution in military affairs. A disadvantage is that it is resource intensive. It’s not easy to get hold of, and researching and designing it can take years. Another major shortcoming is that conventional systems lack automation. A huge amount of data is collected in real time during a conflict from different sources. However, many data integration systems rely on manual data entry systems. Also, the manual processing of this huge amount of data is an obstacle. This is where the IoT will come in. It is cost effective and automated, which will make it a valuable part of NCW military systems.

In this “information age”, technological advancements are shaping the world at a very rapid pace. The IoT impacts every aspect of human life, as it is a network of physical devices that can come in any form, including household appliances, smart gears, actuators and connectivity and data exchange software. The number of IoT devices is increasing day by day as more and more devices are connected to the internet. At the end of 2021, the total number of active IoT devices was estimated at around 12.2 billionmore than the total human population.

The IoT is used in all spheres of life, from medical to military. In the military domain, it is deployed for combat purposes, including command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR); in fire control systems, delivering devastating firepower; in security systems based on facial, iris, fingerprint or radio frequency identification (RFID) technology; in training and simulation exercises; and electronic warfare.

Using IoT for NCW can be very beneficial for the latter. IoT systems are much cheaper than traditional systems used for real-time data collection. Situational awareness is one of the central aspects of NCW. For this, real-time data is collected, shared and reprocessed at the same time to gather information and formulate a strategy. IoT devices are not only cheaper but also more efficient. IoT systems collect real-time data about the systems themselves, sub-metric data, and environmental data. The second utility of IoT systems is automation. They can collect, share and reprocess large amounts of data without human assistance. This will have two benefits for NCW. First, large amounts of data will be reprocessed quickly, reducing response time and increasing efficiency. Second, it will reduce the human burden and free people for other tasks.

IoT is a cutting-edge technology and together with the military affairs revolution, it will have a huge impact on the battlefield. It addressed a few shortcomings of NCW and increased many of its abilities, increasing its effectiveness. With the speed at which Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom unfolded two decades ago, we can imagine what the future holds.

Abdul Moiz Khan works as a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) in Islamabad. He tweets at @kmoizsays.

Image: DVD.

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