Military Embedded Systems

C4ISR systems and the kill web


December 20, 2018

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. In previous articles, we looked at the market research reports and forecasts for fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and ground combat vehicles. All those platforms contain C4ISR systems (command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). The openly available data about this market is much foggier than the information on the military platform markets. Making things more complicated, C4ISR is further divided into radar, sonar, signals intelligence (SIGINT), sensors, electronic warfare (EW), cyber warfare (CW), COMM (networked military communications), and administrative systems. Moments of clarity do surface in the reports, but you have to dig for them.

I looked at five market reports, and they basically break things down into five areas: naval, airborne, land-based, space-based, and fully integrated systems. The largest C4ISR market segment is in land-based platforms (ground combat vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, command centers, etc). No surprise there, if you recall the predicted volumes for ground platforms being bought over the next ten years. The Pentagon has shifted their focus from chasing terrorists in primitive Middle Eastern countries, to fighting conventional wars against nation-states like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

The fastest growing segment for C4ISR systems is in airborne platforms. No surprise there either, if you read the previous articles on next-generation fighter planes, UAVs, and long-range bombers. It's all about networking the ISR systems, to share targeting information with each weapon in the combat zone. Wherever the enemy moves tanks, soldiers, planes, or ships into position (first, second, and third generation warfare: massed manpower, massed firepower, and maneuver warfare), that location becomes the battlefield and the Kill Web fires the appropriate weapons at those targets (sixth generation warfare: manipulation of space and time). Only after the enemy’s command and control systems are severely diminished, and his primary defensive capabilities are destroyed, do we send-in ground troops. Read Max Boot’s account of Desert Storm (the liberation of Kuwait), in his book "War Made New," to see how it works.

Let’s look at some examples of fogginess I promised in the first paragraph. Another market report states that airborne is the largest market segment for C4ISR, while land-based systems is the fastest growing. That's believable, if you think existing fighter planes, UAVs, and bombers will be upgraded more quickly than replaced. And, if you believe that ground-based platforms might be replaced instead of upgraded. Another report predicts that nation-state spending will reach $132.26 billion on C4ISR systems by 2026, worldwide.

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All these reports talk about dollars instead of unit volumes. That doesn’t give us much clarity, so it’s best that we integrate the market reports on platform volumes from the previous articles, to get a better perspective. I'll recap those for you here: starting in 2019, we’re talking about 43,500 military ground vehicles, 324 fighter planes, maybe three to five bomber aircraft, 450 military helicopters, about 5,000 UAVs (mostly small ones), and maybe 15 or 20 warships purchased per year. These numbers are worldwide, the platforms bought by the countries who have money. Each of these new platforms will contain C4ISR elements. Then, consider that many existing tanks, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, and big UAVs will be upgraded with new advanced C4ISR systems. For the next few years, I suspect that the unit volumes for upgrades will be larger than the unit volumes for new platforms, based on the military budgets and the political climate.

If we look at the primary sub-segments of C4ISR, that might sharpen our view a little. Let's start with the research on radar. These reports also divide the market into naval, land-based, airborne, and space segments, so that’s a good start. They say that land-based radar is the largest segment, mostly for air and missile defense systems. And, they say that long-range radar is the largest sub-segment (versus medium and short-range radars). But by 2024, airborne radar will be the largest segment. By 2027, the worldwide market for military radar systems will be $17.8 billion.

EW is the next category. According to one market report, 63,110 EW systems will be built from 2017 to 2031, worth $28 billion. Over the 14 years of the report, that’s 4,508 systems per year on average. They divide these systems into detection, attack, and support systems. The DoD comptroller released a report recently, that shows $5 billion scheduled for investment in EW systems in 2019. But, much of that spending is in black programs (classified), so we can't see the details.

Next up is the sonar market. The reports on this segment include systems used in commercial fishing, seafloor mapping, ichthyology students looking for sharks, and military sonar. I suspect that’s because the market is too small for a focused military report. So, we have to sort-out the commercial stuff to make any sense of the numbers. They divide the systems into active, passive, and dual-mode operation, but they don’t disclose any unit volumes. The total market for sonar systems will be $3.72 billion by 2022, and the military segment will be the largest.

Then, we have the military communications market (COMM). This includes radios and digital links in ship, airborne, ground, and submarine platforms. One reports says this market is growing at about 10 percent, from 2018 to 2028, driven by the need to integrate ISR systems and weapons into the network. COMM will reach $37.67 billion worldwide, by 2023. Again, the reports don’t openly disclose any unit volumes. Take a look at DARPA’s CODE project (Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments), and the Army’s ITN project (Integrated Tactical Network) to see what’s happening in this area. We’ll explore those in a future column.

Finally, we have the SIGINT systems market. I looked at 10 or 15 different market report links, and none of them openly disclosed the market size in dollars or unit volumes in their press releases. But, the articles did say that ground systems is the largest segment of SIGINT, and the total market is growing at nearly 7 percent per year. SIGINT technology is another sensitive area, so that's why there is little information about it on the web.

The sketchy information about C4ISR motivated me to look at this market from a different angle. The market reports above concentrate on what C4ISR is. They focus on the components, a bottom-up approach. What we should do is look at what C4ISR does, a top-down approach. That inspired me to reread Ray Kurzweil’s 2001 essay, "The Law of Accelerating Returns." He claims that exponential growth rates are increasing exponentially, a double exponential growth rate, in technology and its capabilities. Today, we have systems that can process ISR data about our enemies so fast, that we can react to them in 10 minutes or less just like General John Jumper wanted.

In the near future, high-speed processors and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms will enable us to predict the future. We will know what our enemy’s options are and what they will do next on the battlefield, based on statistical probabilities. Then, we can accurately anticipate their moves and thwart them before they act. So, I watched "Minority Report," a movie where "Pre-crime Police" arrest people before they commit a crime, based on foreknowledge. After that, I watched “The Terminator” movie again. That movie introduced us to Skynet, an omnipresent AI network that collects, analyzes, sorts, and routes targeting information to the Terminator killing machines. Skynet creates an insurmountable advantage over its enemies: it gets smarter and faster as the war progresses.

I also did some reading in books, to better understand what C4ISR technologies and tactics have already accomplished in battle. Operation Enduring Freedom (the invasion of Afghanistan) started on 7 October 2001. On the first day, U.S. and British planes and ships fired their cruise missiles and destroyed 31 Taliban air defense systems, communications facilities, training camps, and airfields. On the second day, they destroyed only 13 primary targets. On the third day, there was concern from the Joint Chiefs that the campaign was slowing down. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld clarified the situation: "We’re not running out of targets. Afghanistan is. [Targets are] emerging as we continue." After the third day, using information from the C4ISR network, Predator drones hunted-down emerging targets and destroyed them with Hellfire missiles, just like Skynet fed targeting information to the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 killing machines. That clarified things for me, about the advanced systems going into military platforms: (1) C4ISR systems are the wiring and plumbing of the kill web. (2) The kill web is the real-world version of Skynet. And (3), the kill web grows exponentially smarter and faster as the war progresses. You can read more about Afghanistan running out of targets in Richard Whittle’s book, "Predator."

As I was contemplating advanced C4ISR systems during this holiday season, visions of futuristic weapons (not sugar plums) danced in my head. Researching the topics in this series of articles tangentially discovered a number of videos, that illustrate many astonishing weapons and gadgets that could be coming to the kill web in the future. That’s the theme of our next adventure. I’m tired of reading market research reports.