December 4, 2021

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Military Operations: Recent Campaigns Benefited from Improved Communications and Technology, but Barriers to Continued Progress Remain

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<div>Recent U.S. combat operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq benefited from new Department of Defense (DOD) strategies and technologies, such as improvements in force networks and increased use of precision weapons, designed to address changes in the security environment resulting from the continuing terrorist threat and the advent of the information age. Based on the authority of the Comptroller General, GAO reviewed these conflicts, with a focus on bombing operations, to gain insight into the changes being implemented by DOD. This report focuses on (1) assessing the impact on operational effectiveness of improvements in force networks and in the use of precision weapons and (2) identifying key barriers to continued progress.Improvements in force networks and in the use of precision weapons are clearly primary reasons for the overwhelming combat power demonstrated in recent operations. However, the full extent to which operations have been speeded up or otherwise affected is unclear because DOD does not have detailed measures of these effects. Enhancements to networked operations, such as improved sensors and surveillance mechanisms, and more integrated command and control centers, have improved DOD's ability to share a broad view of the battlefield and communicate quickly with all elements of the force--reducing the time required for analysis and decision making in combat operations. However, recognizing that the full impact of these changes is unclear, DOD is conducting a series of case studies to better understand the effects of networked operations. Improvements in force networks have also been enhanced by the use of precision-guided weapons and associated technologies. These improvements not only provide commanders with greatly increased flexibility, such as the ability to conduct bombing operations in poor weather and from higher and safer altitudes, but also increase the accuracy of bombing operations. GAO's analysis found that the percentage of attacks resulting in damage or destruction to targets increased markedly between operations in Kosovo and those in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding these improvements, certain barriers inhibit continued progress in implementing the new strategy. Four interrelated areas stand out as key: (1) a lack of standardized, interoperable systems and equipment, which reduces effectiveness by requiring operations to be slowed to manually reconcile information from multiple systems and limiting access to needed capabilities among military services; (2) continuing difficulties in obtaining timely, high quality analyses of bombing damages, which can slow ground advances and negate other improvements in the speed of operations; (3) the absence of a unified battlefield information system to provide standardized measures and baseline data on bombing effectiveness, which creates confusion about the success of new tactics and technologies, about assumptions used in battlefield simulation programs, and about procurement decisions; and (4) the lack of high quality, realistic training to help personnel at all levels understand and adapt to the increased flow of information, more centralized management, and other changes in the operating environment brought about by the strategic changes.</div>
Department of Defense To ensure continuing evolution of the capabilities demonstrated in recent conflicts, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Joint Staff, the Joint Forces Command and other unified commands, and the military departments to identify the primary information required for bombing operations, such as targeting and battle damage assessments, ensure that planned interoperability enhancements provide the standardized definitions, mission reporting formats, and other necessary instructions for this information to be used by all unified commands during joint combat operations, and determine whether this standardized information can replace that used by the individual services.

Closed – Implemented

DOD concurred with our recommendation. The Joint Staff, in coordination with the Joint Forces Command, worked to address these issues through the Joint Network Fires Capability roadmap, Joint Fires Initiative, Joint Close Air Support Action Plan, and Joint Targeting School, among others over the last several years. In addition, DOD changed its approach to resolving Joint interoperability issue by focusing at the data level, outlining a new approach to manage data within Communities of Interest (COI). These COIs are collaborative groups of users required to exchange information in pursuit of shared goals, interests, missions, or business processes. By taking steps to identify the primary information required for bombing operations and focusing more at the user level, DOD has improved planning and help ensure better communication and coordination among key decision makers needed for successful joint combat operations.

Department of Defense To ensure continuing evolution of the capabilities demonstrated in recent conflicts, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Joint Staff, the Joint Forces Command and other unified commands, and the military departments to formulate a plan to provide sufficient numbers of personnel trained in battle damage assessment procedures when they are needed for combat operations and include in the plan the following: incentives for personnel to take the existing joint training on damage assessment, development of a system to be used by the Joint Forces Command to track and mobilize personnel who have received damage assessment training for use during surge situations, and development of guidance on the appropriate use of effects-based, probabilistic, and other nontraditional concepts in assessing battle damages.

Closed – Implemented

DOD partially concurred with our recommendation. The Joint Staff, in coordination with the Joint Forces Command, worked to address these issues through the Joint Network Fires Capability roadmap, Joint Fires Initiative, Joint Close Air Support Action Plan, and Joint Targeting School, among others over the last several years. Clarifying key information required for bombing operations and developing plans and systems to address battle damage assessments and key measures of bombing operations will facilitate planning and help ensure better communication and coordination among key decision makers.

Department of Defense To ensure continuing evolution of the capabilities demonstrated in recent conflicts, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Joint Staff, the Joint Forces Command and other unified commands, and the military departments to develop a unified battlefield information system that provides for the identification and collection of data on key, standardized measures of bombing operations needed to assess the basic efficiency and effectiveness of such operations, for use by all unified commands.

Closed – Implemented

DOD concurred with our recommendation. The Joint Staff, in coordination with the Joint Forces Command, worked to address these issues through the Joint Network Fires Capability roadmap, Joint Fires Initiative, Joint Close Air Support Action Plan, and Joint Targeting School, among others over the last several years. Clarifying key information required for bombing operations and developing plans and systems to address battle damage assessments and key measures of bombing operations will facilitate planning and help ensure better communication and coordination among key decision makers.

Department of Defense To ensure continuing evolution of the capabilities demonstrated in recent conflicts, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Joint Staff, the Joint Forces Command and other unified commands, and the military departments to develop a joint operations training capability that provides commanders and staffs with a realistic simulation of the increased pace of operations and other emerging changes to the combat operating environment.

Closed – Implemented

DOD concurred with our recommendation. The Joint Staff, in coordination with the Joint Forces Command, worked to address these issues through the Joint Network Fires Capability roadmap, Joint Fires Initiative, Joint Close Air Support Action Plan, and Joint Targeting School, among others over the last several years. Clarifying key information required for bombing operations and developing plans and systems to address battle damage assessments and key measures of bombing operations will facilitate planning and help ensure better communication and coordination among key decision makers.

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