Lieutenant Colonel Ben McLennan's December Cove article is effusive in its praise of battle management system - dismounted (BMS-D), a 'Missing Link' system that will:
'enable true tempo and reconnaissance pull, optimise combined arms teams (mounted/dismounted), allow us to rapidly perceive and target the enemy’s Centre of Gravity (down to platoon/troop and section levels), attain surprise more readily, better inform commitment of Main Effort and Reserves, enable deception at all levels – as well as allow all to judge the success of such deception, and maximise joint fires and effects.'
Even allowing for some hyperbole it would appear that this system is something of a panacea. And yet at the same time Lieutenant Colonel McLennan reminds us of the truism that 'any enemy… will always seek to dislocate our critical capabilities'. Digitisation is an imperative across the force, no doubt. But BMS-D is a very small, incremental improvement at best.
In the first instance, the seeming unspoken assumption at the minute, not just by Lieutenant Colonel McLennan, is that digital battle management systems provide a robust tactical alternative in the face of a contested voice communications environment. It is not at all clear that this is the case and this assumption needs to be checked. The ultra high frequency (UHF) basis of Army's current system is not immune from jamming. That same system, particularly projected between headquarters (HQ) nodes at vehicle amplification power, is not immune from direction finding. Global Positioning System (GPS) data linked into battle management systems are also not immune from electronic attack. The nature of current BMS hardware presents a massive vulnerability against a technically capable threat actor: the potential exploitation value of a captured node is far in excess of the traditional marked map. Current experiences on Exercises HAMEL and TALISMAN SABRE of contested voice communications are a key part of Army learning to work within this reality. However, they do not yet replicate the full potential of contemporary tactical electronic warfare. In short: the spectrum that sits underneath BMS can be jammed, can be located, can be potentially be spoofed, and presents real risk of capture and exploitation. This is grim and the impacts are such that it is only limited comfort that our competitors need to work within a permanently contested communications environment too.
We might also ask ourselves how commanders, particularly junior commanders outside of formation headquarters, perceive the battlespace. The reality is that this perception at a tactical level is overwhelmingly visual. It is not tactically advantageous for junior commanders to devote any significant portion of their time, during a tactical action, to interacting with a battle management system. Moreover, communication on this means as an alternate to voice communications should only be viewed as a potential redundancy.
Given the reality of contested communications, and the realities of battlespace perception, viewing BMS-D as anything other than a marginal technical improvement is dubious. The promise of seamless communications and timely, certain information for higher HQ is surely ephemeral in any context. Brigadier Chris Smith's rejection of 'synchronisation' remains highly relevant. His extended football analogy also remains worth quoting: 'as long as the players have a rough idea of where to be and how their teammates will respond in a given moment, and a rough idea about the nature of the game and its tendencies, they can cooperate'.
The missing link is not BMS-D, or any other battle management system, or any technical system at all - at least at the minute. The possibilities of current technological change, as always, are seductive. Dan Skinner's recent article on The Cove is demonstrative of that. Certain facets of technological development may well auger truly great change - robotics, autonomous systems and machine learning key among them. Innovation should and will change how Army fights; it is not at all clear that BMS-D is a key part of that innovation. That system might offer the possibility, for instance, of very short transmissions of text, coupled with sensible use of directional transmission. That could well provide a very secure tactical means of communication suitable for limited circumstances. It might also be an awkward step forward towards a future system which more effectively augments the perception and decision making of junior leaders.
The unappealing and difficult reality is that living up to our own tenets of manoeuvre meshes only with, in Smith's words again, 'a way of warfare that is unrefined, imperfect, simple, cooperative, quick and intuitive'. The foundations of such a way are aggressive section commanders, independent troop leaders and headquarters nodes comfortable with uncertainty. Elegant command and control systems are unlikely to be so, nor are they likely to allow Army to unlock tactical success: 'what is needed is… not more bandwidth. What we need is a change of mindset, less overt process, far fewer people (generally in more junior ranks) and better training of some elements of the staff'.