Military Embedded Systems

Disaggregation and the Kill Web


May 26, 2021

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

Photo of U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21, which integrates manned and unmanned capabilities to generate warfighting advantages. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe)

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. In my previous articles, I may have left the impression that with the technology we have today, hooking all ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and weapons systems together into a seamless, multi-service, multi-domain battle network should be straightforward. Technologically, it is achievable. But operationally, there are serious complex trade-offs that make the decisions difficult. Let’s look at a few of them here, so you have a better idea why building the Kill Web will take some time, lots of testing, and continuous updates to make it function properly.

We’ll take the Air Force as an example. Just before World War II (WWII), British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said, “The bomber will always get through.” What he didn’t say was “...if you send enough bombers to overwhelm enemy air defenses,” but that condition was implied. During WWII, it took 108 Army Air Force bombers, dropping nearly a thousand bombs using the Norden bombsight, to reach 99.9% probability of destroying a German war materials factory according to the Poisson probability distribution. To get 108 bombers over the target, with an anticipated loss rate of 15% to enemy air defenses, you need to send 127 bombers and expect to lose 19 of them before they can drop their ordnance. What Baldwin advocated was the doctrine of quantity - lots of low-technology platforms carrying lots of low-technology bombs.

On 17 January 1991, the beginning of the Gulf War in Iraq, ten F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers flying over Bagdad destroyed multiple military targets with only a few precision-guided bombs in a matter of minutes. No planes were lost and they were not subject to the Poisson probability distribution due to the accuracy of the bombs. The doctrine used in this case was quality: a few high-technology platforms carrying a few high-technology bombs. Clearly after WWII and the Cold War ended, and the wars in the Middle East started-up, the American military doctrine shifted from quantity to quality.

Today, our military's mission is moving from combating terrorism back to great power conflicts, primarily with Russia or China. That will require a greater quantity of platforms that contain some level of quality (advanced technology). The Air Force is trying to figure-out the answers to this quantity-quality dilemma.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

As a deeper illustration, what does the Air Force do with their AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and JSTARS (Joint Surveillance and Attack Radar System) platforms? Both reside on old Boeing 707 airframes, with an RCS (radar cross section) of about 50 square meters (m2). Neither can survive against China's or Russia's advanced air defense radars and missiles in the A2/AD zone (anti-access/area-denial). The B-52 bomber would fare even worse with an RCS of about 100m2.

AWACS is a highly-integrated aircraft containing radar, infrared (IR) and electro-optical (EO) sensors, RF signal receivers (to find and track enemy aircraft in the battle zone), and command-and-control (C2) communications links to airspace commanders. JSTARS is a highly-integrated aircraft containing radar, infrared and electro-optical sensors, and RF signal receivers to find, fix, and track enemy elements on the ground. They also contain C2 communications links to commanders on the battlefield. In 2019, funding for JSTARS upgrades was terminated. AWACS is planned to fly until 2030 before that platform reaches end of life.

Should the Air Force design a few large stealthy (low RCS) highly-integrated aircraft to replace AWACS and JSTARS? No, that’s just a continuation of the quality-based doctrine used in counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East. Under the Air Force ABMS program (Advanced Battle Management System), they will move those subsystems (radar, IR/EO, RF intercept, and C2 communications) to multiple manned and unmanned aircraft, a process called “disaggregation.” Then, they will hook those multiple aircraft together through an RF communications mesh network.

Now consider what the Air Force will do with the EC-130 and EC-37 Compass Call electronic warfare planes (EW). The EC-130 is a C-130 cargo plane with an RCS of 80m2, and the EC-37 is a Gulfstream G550 business jet, that probably has an RCS of at least 15 or 20m2. Our current fighter planes have an RCS of 5m2 (F-16) down to 0.0001m2 (F-22) today, and they get nervous around Chinese and Russian air defense radar systems. The EC-130s are now being retired, and the EC-37s are next. The EW systems onboard those planes must be disaggregated onto multiple manned and unmanned platforms.

What will the aircraft carrying those ISR and EW elements look like? Some of those subsystems have been crammed into the F-35 stealth fighter plane, with an RCS of 0.005m2. That’s a good interim solution. Ultimately, we could see those EW, radar, IR/EO, RF intercept, and C2 communications elements flying on the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie and the Boeing ATS (Airpower Teaming System, or “loyal wingman”). Both platforms are UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), smaller and stealthier than the old AWACS and JSTARS 707 airframes. Maybe they will fly on a platform like the stealthy RQ-180 drone, or other airframes that have not yet been designed. RCS numbers for the XQ-58, ATS, and RQ-180 have not been released for obvious reasons.

Boeing seems to have this disaggregation concept figured-out on the ATS. This autonomous aircraft has a nose that’s 8.5 feet long. And, that nose section (9,000 cubic inches of space) is designed to be removed and replaced in a matter of minutes. So, they can just build different nose sections configured with EW, or radar, or IR/EO, or RF intercept, or C2 communications gear, snap those in place on any ATS airframe, and you’re ready to fly in minutes. Boeing seems to understand that form follows function.

How many XQ-58 or ATS planes will be needed? Look at it this way. An AWACS plane cost about $270 million, and a JSTARS plane cost $244 million. Let’s say they cost about $250 million each, on average. The XQ-58 and the Boeing ATS cost about $2 million each. Once you cram the advanced electronics in them, let’s say they cost $3 million each. So, you can buy about 83 XQ-58s or ATSs for each AWACS or JSTARS plane, roughly speaking. An 83:1 ratio is a very compelling reason to abandon large highly-integrated aircraft. We will see hundreds of these UCAVs  flying over the battlefield of the future, according to the ABMS plans.

There’s another reason that AWACS and JSTARS need to be disaggregated onto multiple platforms: Metcalfe’s Law. He says that the value of the network (the amount of work that can be done) is proportional to the square of the number of platforms connected to the network. Another advantage is that in a mesh network of ISR and EW systems, if multiple platforms are shot-down by enemy air defenses, the network continues to function with the remaining platforms. That’s the benefit of redundancy. There are similar advantages in disaggregating all the weapons-carrying aircraft too, but that’s another story. If you think the word “disaggregation” is a military term for “quantity”, you are correct.

How will we progress to a fully-functional RF-mesh Kill Web with hundreds or thousands of ISR and weapons platforms connected together? Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer said it best: "build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” Some pieces will come together rapidly, as we have seen in the Army’s Project Convergence and the Navy’s recent UxS IBP 21 exercise (See U.S. Navy photo above). Other elements will take more time, software, and engineering.

Look at disaggregation in another way: platform-thinking is purely tactical (what the systems do). Kill Web-thinking is operational (how the systems  are used). The Kill Web sees targeting (ISR) and explosive weapons delivery as a service to the combat commanders, not as specific platforms. It doesn’t matter where the targeting and explosive weapons come from, as long as they hit the target a few minutes after detection. That drags us into another discussion: the command-and-control doctrine of effects-based operations (EBO). That’s what the Pentagon’s JADC2 project (Joint All Domain Command and Control) is trying to define. The first draft of that strategy document is on the way to the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense).

I have barely scratched the surface here about the quantity vs. quality trade-offs, but now you have a general idea about what the Air Force brass are facing in the air domain. The Army has similar trade-offs in the land domain. The Navy faces bigger problems, since they operate in the air, on the sea surface and undersea, and in the land domain with the Marines and SEALS. We’ll examine those in the future. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, I suggest that you read Christian Brose’s new book, “The Kill Chain” (2020).

I’ve been reading a bunch of articles about new developments in Kill Web technology over the past few months. I’ll pull those together and do an update on several topics for next time. That will bring you up to speed, keep you informed, and assuage any anguish you might be experiencing from reading this article.

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