Forget about China’s missiles and stealth fighter; worry instead about ‘non-kinetic’ combat

by Robert Haddick on January 19, 2011

What’s got the focus of U.S. naval intelligence? Although the first test flight of China’s new J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter made the news last week, and PACOM commander Admiral Robert Willard recently declared that China’s DF-21D medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile has now achieved “initial operational capability,” those developments are not the most worrisome to Vice Admiral David Dorsett, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance. What’s Dorsett’s greatest concern? It is China’s capabilities for non-kinetic combat, its potential to “develop capabilities to dominate in the electromagnetic spectrum,” which Dorsett asserts could be “game-changing.” Dorsett is preparing for warfare on non-kinetic battlefields, where failure would leave traditional kinetic warriors stuck in the barracks and with no way to fight.

Dorsett revealed his views during a press briefing he delivered on January 5, 2011, after photos of the J-20 appeared but before the aircraft had made its first test flight (h/t Information Dissemination). Initial news stories of Dorsett’s briefing focused on his confession that the U.S. intelligence community was surprised at the rate at which Chinese weapon developers delivered the J-20 and DF-21D. The actual transcript of the briefing shines new light on the priorities and concerns of the chief of U.S. naval intelligence.

This excerpt from the briefing sums up Dorsett’s concerns:

I’ve been concerned about Chinese game-changing capabilities in non-kinetic vice kinetic. I am concerned about the [anti-ship] ballistic missile. I am concerned about stealth fighter aircraft. But the area and the technology that I’m most concerned about is China’s focus and attention on trying to develop capabilities to dominate in the electromagnetic spectrum, to conduct counter-space capabilities, and clearly to conduct cyber activities. That’s a greater concern for me than some of the other hardware-driven or kinetic associated capabilities that they’re delivering.

Dorsett repeated this message several times during the briefing.

Launching a guided missile, dropping a precision bomb, or even firing a sniper rifle at an enemy soldier is merely the last of a long sequence of actions that involve reliance on access to the electromagnetic spectrum. U.S. military forces use electro-optical, infrared, and signal sensors to gather information about an enemy’s positions, capabilities, and order of battle. It then uses radio transmissions, computer networks, and satellite relays to transmit that information for analysis by intelligence specialists armed with computers. Commanders use their computers and numerous communications networks to transmit their operational orders to warfighters who then rely on radio networks, sensors, and satellites to move against the enemy and into a position to do some kinetic shooting. A military force that can deny its opponent access to the electromagnetic spectrum at critical points along that chain of events will obtain a crucial and possibly decisive advantage.

This is already a well-known feature of modern warfare, but it appears that Dorsett felt it important to restate this reality to his audience. In doing so, he made note of his concerns about China’s military strategy. Dorsett implied that China is using its capabilities in electrical and computer engineering and space operations to hold at risk the U.S. military’s access to the electromagnetic spectrum at vulnerable points along its intelligence-gathering and command and control processes. By Dorsett’s reckoning, Chinese planners have developed a strategy that directs their engineering talent at U.S. vulnerabilities and in a way that both avoids and negates U.S. strengths.

Dorsett is a naval officer with responsibility for preparing the Navy for conflict on the sea, air, and space. Do his views on the need to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum have any relevance for the irregular warfare challenges facing the Army and Marine Corps in Afghanistan?

Coalition forces dominate the electromagnetic spectrum in Afghanistan. But this dominance has yet to win the war. Coalition commanders still don’t have enough information about the enemy’s locations, order of battle, and current operations. The U.S. is attempting to address this shortfall with more, more human collectors on the ground and more overhead reconnaissance in the form of Reaper drones now increasingly equipped with Gorgon imaging units which produce a tsunami of data. This tidal wave of data now exceeds the ability of human analysts to keep up; commanders now need more computers and more pattern recognition software to make use of the data provided by all of the collectors. It remains to be seen whether the essential data commanders need will be inside the tidal wave or whether intelligence analysts will find a way to cope with the flood. In the meantime, the Taliban may at some point find their best investment to be cyberwarfare worms rather than more ammonium nitrate.

We associate modern war with fiery things that go “boom!” But in Dorsett’s next war, much if not all of the skirmishes will be in a non-kinetic electromagnetic realm fought by computer worms, electronic jammers, crashes in outer space, and information deception. It will be a strange war, with the traditional warriors waiting for the non-kinetic prelude to end before they can even travel to the battlefield.


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