The digitalization of the battlefield should not forget the GPS experience

The German RheinMetall presented at the AFCEA Show in Bonn, its new TacNets battlefield digitalization and tactical management system. Like its alter-egos such as the French program SCORPION, TacNets makes it possible to create a detection and transmission mesh of information from all units to detect, connect and react (this is the base line of the system). The system is designed to integrate new sensors, essential scalability in a rapidly changing environment, particularly since the arrival of tactical drones. It also allows, like social networks, to create applications to extend the possibilities of specific analyses.

The digitalization of the battlefield has become one of the major work subjects of the General Staffs. Its operating principle is relatively simple: allow multiple sensors and actors to collaborate and exchange data on the engagement zone, creating a detection and data exchange mesh, consolidating the quality of this data, extending the analysis possibilities in a robust system, resistant to attrition. This is typically the case of the SCORPION system which will equip combat vehicles and infantrymen of the French Army from next year.

This technology will not only make it possible to broadcast a clear and precise vision of the battlefield to all components of the force, but also to coordinate tactical actions, maximizing their effectiveness while minimizing risks. 

However, such promises are reminiscent of those made on the use of GPS-guided weapons and the navigation system itself. Capable of positioning itself to the meter, GPS revolutionized navigation, whether aerial, naval or land, and gave rise to numerous families of guided munitions which, knowing precisely their position, and that of the target, can sometimes even lead there by using the terrain to hide its arrival. The system was so good that many armed forces neglected to train their forces in a GPS-free environment. 

The surprise was therefore total when the adversary deployed devices capable of jamming the GPS signal over large areas, as was the case in the Donbass where the Ukrainian forces confronted pro-Russian rebels and paramilitaries equipped and trained by the Russian army. Thus, Ukrainian tactical drones, made in the United States, found themselves incapable of navigating or transmitting useful information, when they did not simply fall into the hands of the adversary. And indeed, Russia, like China, now has the capacity to create significant GPS jamming bubbles. This was notably demonstrated during the Zapad-2017 exercise during which GPS in Poland, the Baltic countries and Finland were rendered inoperable for a few hours due to satellite signal jamming, the origin of which was attributed to Russian forces. in maneuver.  

Suddenly, the General Staff realized that the majority of aerial munitions stocks were GPS-guided, or that pilots and soldiers no longer knew how to navigate without the precious key. In other words, an entire section of the military capabilities of Western forces was unusable or rendered ineffective due to the denial of service imposed by Russian jamming.

History is likely to repeat itself if military staff, but also manufacturers, attach too much importance to the digitalization of the battlefield. As with GPS, the connections of these systems can be jammed, or even hacked or intercepted. The Germans were absolutely certain that Enigma was inviolable, yet Allan Turing's team had managed to decipher it in 1942. It is therefore essential that armies maintain tactical capabilities in degraded mode, without resorting to these systems, and therefore to have the equipment and training necessary for this hypothesis.

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