Mosaic Warfare: DARPA’s Answer to Combating America’s Advanced Foes

Timothy Grayson, director of DARPA’s Strategic Technologies Office, explains the concept of mosaic warfare and its path to implementation at DARPA’s 60th anniversary symposium, Sept. 5, 2018, in Oxon Hill, Md. DARPAtv screenshot photo via YouTube.

The US military should adopt a new, adaptable, and resilient force design to eliminate single points of failure, such as critical data links, that could put US forces at risk in peer-to-peer combat, according to a new report produced for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Dubbed "Mosaic Warfare," this new design concept would confound enemies by presenting a highly adaptable web of sensors, shooters, and decision-makers enabled by advanced computing. That network—named for the adaptable, piecemeal art form—should be able to assemble and disassemble itself into infinite new combinations on the fly.

DARPA commissioned the report, “Restoring America’s Military Competitiveness,” from AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who now runs the Mitchell Institute, authored the study with Senior Fellow Heather Penney using input from retired Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzreim and Mark Gunzinger. It rolled out at a Sept. 10 event on Capitol Hill.

The US military must adapt to the changing approaches of peer adversaries, especially China, the report argues, in order to overcome weaknesses in US capability, including:

  • Small numbers of highly capable systems that are too precious to lose in combat;

  • An inefficient acquisition process that takes too long to develop new systems and contributes to higher costs; and

  • Over-dependence on a centralized command-and-control structure with vulnerable, single-point communications.

“In a single phrase, this is about monolith-busting,” Tim Grayson, director of DARPA’s Strategic Technologies Office, said at the Sept. 10 event. “This is about not relying on monolithic single points of failure,” whether those are platforms that are so complex and expensive that the military cannot afford enough of them, or system-of-system architectures that fail “under the weight of their own complexity.”

Mosaic Warfare is DARPA’s answer. The agency is pursuing a portfolio of programs designed to fill in US capability gaps, using advances in computing and artificial intelligence, networking, and a growing sense that the military no longer needs to pack all kinds of tools into one elite system to be the most effective.

Instead, the military can disaggregate what it can do across multiple platforms and sensors, Deptula said, reducing vulnerabilities for US forces and complicating the problem facing adversaries. That idea has started to take shape as part of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System effort and its shift toward platforms with “plug-and-play” parts for various missions.

Today’s smaller Air Force is part of the problem, Penney said.

“If we’d not gutted our military after the fall of the Soviet Union, we might not be having this conversation today, because we’d have capability and capacity,” she said. “All of the services today are in dire need of recapitalization, but none more so than the Air Force, which is smaller and older than at any point in its history. Having spent the last 17 years in extremely permissive environments, our force is too small, our information systems too brittle, our command and control—and even our execution—too centralized to withstand systems warfare.”

With too few critical assets, US forces can be easily hamstrung. Penney agreed with other assessments that argue small fleets don’t provide a dense offense, suffer more when assets are down, and drive up operations and sustainment costs.

Similarly, interoperability problems continue to undermine the US’s effectiveness as a joint force, and over-reliance on centralized networks and too few data links makes those systems lucrative targets for enemies bent on disrupting America’s ability to command troops. Worse yet, reliance on these specialized capabilities has made the American military too predictable, Penney said.

“Through quantity, we need enough diversity and disaggregation of functionality that we don’t simply complicate the adversary’s targeting, we confound it—because there are no critical nodes,” she said.

Mosaic Warfare seeks to turn the traditional construct on its head.

The idea brings together a number of concepts that have emerged in recent years, from overarching combat cloud infrastructure, to multi-domain command and control, to the “loyal wingman” concept that would pair attritable, autonomous aircraft with more advanced assets like the F-35.

Replacing a few exceptional assets with a more diverse swarm is one component of the Mosaic strategy. Breaking down observation, orientation, decision, and attack into separate elements would allow for faster development of capabilities in each area—but not if systems can’t work together.

Grayson said his goal is to “deliver interoperability on demand, as opposed to saying everything has to be part of this one monolithic architecture complying with one global standard. That gets really hard to do and very brittle.”

But the military can’t get the most out of new tools if tactics and training don’t evolve along with them. DARPA is developing technologies to address tactics development, validation, training, and certification, Grayson said: “That’s where a lot of our programs are focused.”

The report argues the conventional kill chain should be replaced with what the authors call the “kill web.” The difference is that a chain can be disrupted, but a web provides more pathways for combat decision-making to take if one part is broken. A disruption in one corner of this robust web would not prevent the rest of the network from performing its roles and missions.

“We’re looking for technology to enable networking on demand,” Grayson said. “Instead of saying, ‘I’ve got to make sure that link stays up, what are my options to get a link at any given time’ Let’s get away from needing to rely on those networks being always up and densely meshed.”

Flexibility must extend to artificial intelligence as well, Grayson said, and the military must become more comfortable with less-than-perfect solutions. As the Air Force pursues its vision of data-crunching, self-teaching algorithms, experts argue, adaptability will ultimately prove more essential than perfection.