Multiple Reality and the Future of Command and Control

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With ever-expanding human networks, the proliferation of cyberattacks, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), world instability is increasing, and it is often caused by population growth and migration. In this world, the Department of Defense will need a more robust and flexible command and control platform that can facilitate effective and collaborative communications, while providing a high degree of survivability through redundancy and dispersion. Maintaining fidelity and continuity across a disbursed staff, however, can be extremely challenging. Multiple Reality (MR) may provide staffs the flexibility in command and control and survivability needed in the future, allowing them to be widely disbursed while operating as highly cohesive entities.

The world has already entered a phase in its history where various people, groups, and organizations have a greater ability to interact than ever before. With these increased levels of interaction, human networks and ideas rapidly expand, subsequently acting to create new levels of prosperity as well as new tensions and conflicts. Whether by the exchange of ideas or the clash of cultures, security, and maintenance of the status quo will be a paramount concern for nations to maintain their traditional grip on power. As it is, massive population growth, social media, and large-scale migration are already straining existing states dealing with these issues. Change is happening faster than states can adapt to it, and AI and 5G networks will speed this change along at an even higher pace. At the same time, the proliferation of cybercrimes by nefarious and disenfranchised actors grows. As people and entities clash with each other in an ever-shrinking world, security concerns will rise in number. As the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and precision-guided munitions grow alongside an ability to collect data on high-value targets rapidly, current command and control structures will become obsolete, as they are too easily identifiable and targetable.

Redundancy, dispersion, stealth, and the maintenance of fidelity across staff components are the primary characteristics a command and control entity needs to be survivable and flexible enough to maintain ongoing operations. To create a headquarters staff in this image, we have to get rid of our current conception of large staffs working in the same building or in ‘expeditionary’ tents that are, in reality, huge footprints and easily identifiable. Instead, staffs will need to be broken down into small teams capable of operating independently while effective at collaboration over vast distances. By spreading out a large headquarters staff into smaller independent entities, a command gains redundancy, dispersion, and stealth. If staffed appropriately, an enemy would have to target each entity separately to cut the head off the organization. Each team’s electronic emissions and physical footprint would be significantly reduced, making them harder to detect among the diaspora of electronic emissions.

The question then remains, how does a large staff maintain the level of cohesion needed to plan and supervise the execution of complex military operations? MR could present a realistic solution. What is MR? MR brings together the real world with digital elements allowing the user to manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments using next-generation sensing and imaging technologies. MR allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands. Think of the Iron Man movies as an example of this and how Tony Stark seemingly grabs at holographic projections out of thin air to manipulate them. With MR, we can rethink how the U.S. conducts command and control. Staffs at every level are challenged to maintain effective coordination and communication of plans. MR has the potential to allow a commander to issue detailed orders over a three-dimensional holographic map, remotely, while seeing his troops and looking at them in the face. Physically walking the ground where troops will go into could become a reality with AI, too, significantly increasing the situational awareness, pre-combat preparations, and planning operations.  

Today operations are often planned by one or many working groups in a conference room or rooms, working to solve complex problem sets. Usually, the results of these planners’ efforts are laid out in detail via presentations and written documents. When staffs are widely disbursed, detailed documents and presentations are essential to maintaining the fidelity of planning across a staff. Face-to-face communication, however, is the most effective form of communication; phone or email communication prevents parties from reading facial expressions, emotions, and tone of voice, in the case of email.[i] When planners are not in the same room together, often-important details are overlooked, forgotten, or there is just much less left unsaid. While convenient, planning conducted over the phone or via email, raises the risk of stove-piped planning, leaving key players and considerations out of important conversations. Planning complex military operations are difficult enough when all essential people get in a room together as any operation has its inherent difficulties. However, the difficulty in the thoroughness of planning is exacerbated without face-to-face coordination.  

MR could help the U.S. military overcome the challenge of face-to-face coordination among widely disbursed staffs.[ii] This technology could help the U.S. to out cycle an enemy by speeding up the planning and decision-making process in numerous ways. MR could reduce staff workloads by eliminating the development of PowerPoint presentations, which are often scrutinized wastefully over minutiae having more to do with aesthetics than the details of the mission. Products developed and shared via MR in real-time, like three-dimensional maps and the ability to walk the ground where a mission is going to happen, can help cut back on needless staff churn. Both of these tools could increase the accuracy and precision of future missions, making the U.S. a more lethal force. Another benefit of MR is the potential for planners, commanders, and the ‘boots on the ground’ all being able to talk face-to-face with one another, helping to increase the precision of missions. Relationships with foreign partners could be developed more quickly, too, with lower-level staffs having the ability to interact with the partners earlier and more frequently. Finally, MR has a much lighter logistical footprint than most other collaborative tools we have today, including telephone and email.

Building on the idea of working closely with foreign partners, MR and AI are ideal for helping bridge language gaps quicker with instant translation of speech. MR has the potential to help commanders better recognize influencing human factors, including emotional considerations, judgment, and other situational factors. Essential to a system like this, however, is building a trusting relationship between humans and the technology behind MR. While AI today is valuable, it is not always right, and humans must still be able to ‘read between the lines’ to determine the best course of action. For example, everyone has dealt with receiving the wrong directions from a GPS navigation system before. While not a frequent occurrence, it is not unheard of either. Building trust between users and their AI counterparts requires training, and humans must be able to determine what information provided by the AI is accurate and what is not.

The counter-argument to MR is that staffs already can do remote face-to-face coordination. Video-teleconference (VTC) has been around for some time and is widely used by staffs in the U.S. military. To operate a VTC, you need a television or monitor, a video camera, a phone system, generators, and technicians capable of setting up and maintaining a system that the vast majority of military members are completely untrained and inexperienced in. VTC is also not available to the average planner at his workstation due to the cumbersome size of the system. VTCs are just too logistically cumbersome and maintenance-intensive for the small unit level. The practicality of using one falls off dramatically for maneuver units, not in fixed positions. Subsequently, as is the reality today, battalions, companies, and smaller units rarely have or employ them.

Again, MR addresses the shortfalls of VTC. A pair of glasses, a camera, and a network can connect staffs and planners in completely separate cities, virtually planting them in the same conference room, looking at the same whiteboards, conducting detailed coordination, while working with others face-to-face. Maneuver units, as well as large staffs, could adopt MR because of how light the logistical footprint is. This technology could connect commanders at different levels with trigger pullers who are preparing for a mission, even potentially flattening the military rank structure, which could be a positive benefit in a world demanding ever higher precision from its professional warfighters.

All the benefits MR provides would allow a large headquarters staff to break down into small independent teams that can maintain a high level of cohesion and fidelity in the planning of operations while disbursed, stealthier, redundant, and more survivable. MR has an enormous potential to change how large staffs down to the smallest unit leader can change the future of command and control. With a lighter logistical footprint and an increased ability for commanders, staffs, and foreign partners to interact with, the military could make significant strides in dramatically increasing its operational tempo, out-cycling adversaries, building partner relations, and increasing the precision and lethality of operations.

Robert Clifford is an active duty United States Marine Corps infantry officer with extensive operational level experience as well as being an avid reader of military operational art. He currently works with NATO as part of an advisory team to component staffs on ground operations and command and control. Any views in this article belong to Robert Clifford and do not represent the views of the United States Marine Corps.


[i] Nickitas, D. M. (2019). First-Face Communication: Is Digital Technology Impacting Leadership Communication Effectiveness? Nursing Economics, 65-66.

[ii] Nagata H., Mikami D., Miyashita H., Wakayama K., Takada H. (2017). Virtual Reality Technologies in Telecommunication Services. Journal of Information Processing, 142-152.

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