Vauban Sessions 2021 

Command in the Digital Age:

The Impact of Data

18th - 19th January 2021

The 2021 Vauban Sessions, hosted virtually on 18-19 January 2021 by the French Rapid Reaction Corps and CEIS-Avisa Partners, brought together some 120 participants from 23 NATO Nations, of some 45 flag officers (Lieutenant General to Colonel).

The debates, held under the Chatham House rule were moderated by former NATO SACT General (rtd.) Jean-Paul Paloméros, and gathered speakers from NATO and EU institutions, and national and multinational military leadership.

Summary of debates

Digital transformation: from collaborative combat to interoperability

The digital transformation of military operations has accelerated since the early 2000s. With a resurgent risk of high intensity conflict (HIC), this transformation has taken on a crucial role in preparing forces for the 21st century. 

Collaborative combat, based on information and data-sharing, contributes to securing a strategic advantage by augmenting commanders’ situational awareness, resulting in better, more accurate decision-making. Collaborative combat also addresses Armed Forces’ decreasing size, by providing new ways of dominating adversaries. 

Too much information (so-called “infobesity”) can also delay decisions. It is thus vital for Armed Forces to ensure efficient data management, using Artificial Intelligence where necessary to prioritise information under time pressure. The digital transformation of C2 also implies that Armed Forces become and remain resilient to cyber threats, and that interoperability remains a key concern: information can only be shared efficiently when both networks and technological tools are interoperable. While interoperability is not a new concern in the military domain, it takes on increasing importance with the expansion of digital tools and solutions. Standards promoting interoperability must be adopted in this field at all levels, including below brigade level. An additional challenge to interoperability remains the various levels of national, joint and Allied confidentiality.

Technology, people, concepts

Digital transformation, be it in the civilian or military domain, is as much about technological innovation as it is about people. Today’s innovation impacts every level of Command and Control and each phase of the OODA loop. This transformation requires revisiting the organisation of staffs and procedures, including information management to truly transform innovation into operational superiority in a multi-domain and multinational environment.

To do so implies the development of pragmatic concepts handle more data faster and more accurately. Relying solely on the newest technologies is not sufficient to maintain technological superiority: human decision remains crucial in complex combat situations. Doctrine must catch up with the integration of innovation into systems. New sensor technologies, Big Data, Cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence, human machine teaming and autonomous systems, to name but a few, are the focus of the next phase in the digital transformation of Armed Forces. Yet these technologies will only enable troops and decision-makers alike to focus on high-value tasks if processes match innovation. 

Data: the lifeblood of efficient decision-making

While data takes on increasing importance in today’s C2 systems, several significant challenges still face Forces in optimising its use. To be of any value, data must be turned into information which can lead do the right decisions at the right time. The sharing of relevant, real-time information across the decision-making chain, ultimately contributing to improved situational awareness requires a fully interoperable C2 system. 

Systems can fail, whether through physical or cyber-attacks or through human. High levels of resilience and the ability to continue operations without this support (degraded mode) are therefore required. As mentioned above, information overload remains a risk which can lead to micromanagement and a loss of big picture awareness. 

Human-machine teaming can provide solutions and will require working closely with industry. Decision-aiding tools should be developed collaboratively with end-users to ensure they match requirements and remain part of a fast and agile development progress. Cooperation between Forces and developers can also reduce appropriation and deployment time, allow upgrades of legacy systems and protect sensitive data.

Innovation vs. traditional military procurement

Traditional defence procurement is complex, marked by specific processes and lengthy cycles, ill-suited to the increasingly rapid rhythm of innovation. Capturing innovation from across the public-private divide is vital for the military. Major innovation can come from small players such as SME and start-ups, who can often be unfamiliar with the defence sector. 

One solution tested in a number of organisations is pushing small-scale projects to complement defence procurement by driving innovation from within. Another is the approach promoted by the European Union, which seeks to stimulate innovation in the defence sector by bringing together stakeholders from different cultural backgrounds. The newly minted European Defence Fund for 2021-2027 allocates up to 8% of its budget to disruptive technologies in an effort to keep Europe at the forefront of innovation.

NATO’s efforts to protect the Alliance’s technological superiority across the land, sea, air and cyber domains include initiatives by the NATO Industrial Advisory Group (NIAG), the Innovation Board and the Emerging and Disruptive Technologies Roadmap/ These aim to promote and capture innovation and to foster interoperability and the connective tissue between allies. 

Further reading