war on the rocks

The Death of Precision in Warfare?

November 27, 2018

Our recent commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice gave us occasion to reflect on a number of issues related to warfare, strategy, and the basics of humanity. With hindsight, World War I demonstrates at once the futility of throwing mass against mass in war, and — in contrast — the superiority of the concept of precision. Precision, the ability to neutralize or dislocate an adversary using precise effects, has been the aspiration of Western armed forces for over 50 years.

The pursuit of precision effects has, however, encouraged a culture of technological determinism, demanding increasingly exquisite technological solutions. This is problematic because the conflation of technology with precision effects has led Western militaries to spend increasingly large amounts on platforms and weapon systems when arguably, given the capabilities of their actual adversaries, a cheaper, less precise solution would be as substantively effective. In short, Western militaries have prepared to fight adversaries that look like them, rather than those adversaries they can expect to fight.

The effect of this technological fetishism is the production of a small number of expensive platforms and weapon systems that cannot be easily regenerated. The cost and concomitant lack of redundancy associated with the current paradigm of precision thus precludes resilience. Almost as the chimes of Big Ben marked the hour of Armistice in London, in a Norwegian fjord, HNoMS Helge Ingstad was slipping inexorably below the waves, the victim of a collision with a Maltese oil tanker. The loss of the ship represented a 20 percent reduction in Norway’s fleet of frigates, along with a critical blow to Norwegian, and thus NATO, anti-submarine warfare capability in the High North, in turn highlighting the high proportion of capability contained in a small number of expensive platforms and the inability of nations to quickly replace losses. Exquisite platforms are expensive and hence lack resilience and redundancy.

While a lack of resilience is undoubtedly a flaw in the precision paradigm, precision currently remains the only game in town. Unfortunately, however, precision has another more operational and systemic weakness which may prove to be both fundamental and terminal: the dependence of precision platforms and weapon systems on vulnerable networked information. Precise effects are critically dependent on orbiting satellites, wireless technologies, conventional cabling, or undersea cable, for navigation, targeting, and decision-support.

Satellite Technology and Precision

As an example of the fragility of precision, consider the congested environment of near earth orbit and specifically the vulnerability of orbiting satellites, particularly those providing vital navigational information to platforms and weapon systems in all three domains of war. The enablement of precision took a step forward with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation of satellites, the first of which was launched into orbit in 1989. GPS, operated and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, was the first global navigation satellite system, the others being Russia’s GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo and China’s Beidou (initially a regional system now being expanded to provide global coverage). GPS built on previous U.S. military satellite-based navigation systems, such as Transit, highlighting that the recognition of the potential in this area goes back earlier than is commonly acknowledged. It is generally agreed that the Gulf War of 1991 was the first conflict in which GPS played a significant role, the success of which led to further integration of the technology into military systems. As a result, global navigation satellite systems have become the most important component of precision.

These satellite constellations provide precision position, navigation, and timing signals, which militaries use for a range of capabilities, including maritime navigation, missile targeting, and autonomous systems. Using atomic clocks aboard each satellite, the constellations can be used to pinpoint locations on the ground to within a few meters, a level of accuracy which has exponentially improved since the launch of the initial systems. These signals have become so embedded in daily military and civilian operations that even the most mundane domestic task is reliant on them.

The three most significant threats to global navigation satellite systems come from jamming, spoofing, and counter-space capabilities. Ground-based receivers can be jammed using commercially available equipment, leaving satellite receivers unable to access satellite signals for as long as the jammer is deployed. As a result, affected users will lose navigational capability and systems reliant on timing signals, such as transportation networks, will cease to function. There were reports of this kind of ground-based disruption on Trident Juncture, the recent NATO exercise in the high North, affecting Norwegian vessels. Indeed, there has been some misplaced speculation that this may have played a part in the sinking of the Helge Ingstad. Currently, jamming is only possible against receivers, not the signal-providing satellites, although this has the potential to change in the short to medium term as states increase the extent of their space-assisted military operations.

Spoofing, the transmission of a false signal to receivers resulting in platforms mistaking their true position, and/or weapon systems either striking the wrong target or missing a target altogether, is another possible threat to global navigation satellite systems. As with jamming, spoofing is achieved through targeting ground-based receivers, but instead of disrupting the signal it is replaced. If this is done well, the users of the signal will have no suspicion that the information they are relying on is not accurate. The ramifications of spoofing are perhaps greater than jamming: first, because repudiation would lead to loss of trust in precision weapon systems which would undermine their use, and second, because collateral damage caused by a spoofed weapon may have an adverse effect on public opinion and hence the political will to engage in combat operations.

Satellite signals are reliant on the resilience of the satellites within the constellation. As with all other satellites, these are at risk from a variety of threats and hazards. Russia, China, and the United States are developing counter-space capabilities in the form of both kinetic and non-kinetic anti-satellite weapons, and other technologies such as close approach and rendezvous which have in many cases been developed for benign use but could be used in an adversarial manner. The range of technologies available, as well as those known or suspected to be under development, means that satellite operators must continue to adapt.

Artificial satellites are also vulnerable to space weather and debris. For example, a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859, a massive solar flare resulting in the largest geomagnetic storm on record, could lead to catastrophic effects for the global environment and economy through the disruption caused to electronic circuits both in orbit and on the ground. Similarly, a collision in space that results in a significant amount of debris could trigger a chain reaction, known as the Kessler syndrome, leaving the orbit unusable. Although this scenario is more likely in low earth rather than medium earth orbit, where global navigation satellites are located, it would also affect the ability to launch new satellites or to replace, or add to, the existing constellations. As well as the damage and disruption caused, these two potentialities would also result in serious repercussions for the precision paradigm of war.

It is important to note that the vulnerabilities of satellites in general, and global navigation satellites in particular, are well understood, as well as the potential effects of disruption. Indeed, debate and discussion on how best to both mitigate space debris and harden satellites against potential attack or interference is widespread throughout the international community of space actors. This has resulted in plans to ensure that some back-up systems are available and mitigation measures are put in place to ensure that at least some of the lost capabilities can continue. However, in space a partial solution can only ever be temporary, satellites are not easily replaced. An answer must be found which provides survivability for precision effects; that answer is not to mitigate loss, rather it is to replace the current dependence on satellite constellations with an alternative method of delivering those outputs. Precision can only be maintained by finding alternative technologies with greater resilience.

The vulnerability of precision is not limited to either a lack of resilience or even the underestimated militarized activities in space. Rather, precision is at risk from any threat to vulnerable networked information, be that from adversaries, accidents, or acts of God. Western military dominance is built upon precision, and key to that precision is information; our competitors often operate in a different paradigm, that of mass. Should they be able to deny the West precision, by disrupting networked information, particularly in space, they would immediately turn the tables on the lessons learned so dearly over the last century, making our strength a weakness.


Paul Barnes is a British Army Warrant Officer and the current Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. His research focus is on adaptability and the diffusion of innovation in contact. He has seen operational service in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan and holds an MA in Military History from the University of Birmingham.

Alexandra Stickings is Research Analyst for Space Policy and Security within the Military Sciences group at the Royal United Services Institute. Her research focuses on the role of space within defense, counterspace capabilities, space resilience and international space programs. She holds a BSc(Hons) in Physics with Astronomy from the University of Nottingham, a BA(Hons) in International Studies from the Open University and an MSc in International Security and Global Governance from Birkbeck College, University of London.

The views stated in this article do not represent either those of the Royal United Services Institute or the British Army, and are entirely those of the authors.

Image: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart