Big data, AI and earth observation are having a banner year and a lot of that innovation and growth in situational awareness links back to a two-decade-old beautiful failure that I got to witness.
Pundits and politicians regard the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) as an $18-billion boondoggle, a program that spent lots of money but ultimately failed to produce the overwhelming battlefield supremacy that military brass had envisioned, but that’s not the full story.
Let me set the scene. It’s 2003 and I, as the Canadian Armed Forces Liaison Officer to the U.S. Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, KY, was afforded the opportunity to be the only member of a foreign military to participate in the U.S. Army’s latest attempt to win the OODA loop race. We military types do love a good acronym and OODA is a doozy. It stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, and act’ and was coined in the 1950s by U.S. Airforce Colonel John Boyd. This four-step process is now commonplace, as the short-hand description for building situational awareness. Simply put, the OODA loop helps command centres come to a decision and act quicker than your competitor/enemy. Do that and you win.
I was in Kentucky to see how the Army’s new FCS could improve situational dominance and optimize weapons deployment and effects. The FCS experimentation that I participated in, focused on two major groups; the Unit of Employment (Command Element) and the Unit of Action (Fighting Elements). The Unit of Employment consisted of the traditional command, logistics staff plus use of high level ‘sensors’ and ‘shooters’. I was one of four ‘shooters’.
The ‘sensors’ staff coordinated a plethora of high tech situational awareness tools, such as satellites, aircraft, drones, remote sensors and radar, with the goal of gaining and maintaining situational dominance.
My group, the ‘shooters’, were presented with a computer-generated list of every available weapons system, from pistols to sub-launched cruise missiles. Computers prioritized the list to achieve the best possible effect on the selected target. Remember, this is 2003, the year we all thought Blu-Ray was the best thing ever and MySpace was where all the kids were hanging out. I didn’t know it then, but this was my introduction to the metaverse, where the virtual and real worlds merge.
The FCS experiment was incredible and I walked away fascinated by the role of ‘sensors’. History has painted FCS as a failure on many fronts; the technology and, if we’re being honest, the humans were not ready for this ‘futuristic’ way of waging war.
However, I believe a major positive take-away from the FCS experimentation was the paramount role observation – the first ‘O’ in the OODA loop – plays in a mission’s overall success.
Fast forward again to 2021 and we are in the midst of the big data revolution. About 70 per cent of all earth observation satellites were launched in the past five years and military-grade satellite imagery is increasingly available to the private sector. Space-based sensors that were still in the scientists minds and industry skunk-works in 2003, are now commonplace and their outputs will soon be as easy to acquire as shopping on Amazon.
The OODA loop concept is seeing a resurgence as previously difficult-to-access tools are now readily available on today’s business battlefield. Managers and innovators across many sectors are realizing the importance of situational dominance and the ‘O’ in the OODA loop.
I saw that future standing in an arena-sized ‘lab’ in Kentucky in 2003, and I’m using that learning to propel 3D Planeta and our customers towards a brave, new, interconnected world.