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What The Hell Is C4ISR?

April 21, 2014

Afghanistan landscape

For the first time ever, soldiers may no longer have to contend with the fog of war.

In the beginning of the last decade, just as the US launched itself across the Middle East and Central Asia, improved communications and ubiquitous UAVs meant that more and more information was becoming available for decision makers in real-time.

Where previous generations orchestrated events in the battlefield with couriers, signals, and radios, the US and NATO found ways to combine enterprise-level IT and “big data” with the traditional command post.

The result has now been packaged, branded, and marketed via an awful acronym–C4ISR. Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance. The term itself entered circulation several years ago.

C4ISR hasn’t exactly seized the public consciousness yet even when it influences facets of our daily lives. It’s a big thing for militaries around the world, however, and the Chinese have proven susceptible to its charms. What C4ISR does is bring together images, videos, and knowledge in a high-definition rendering of the “battlespace” where an operation is underway.

Its main components are newfangled geospatial intelligence–live mapping by drones and satellites–working together with analytics gathered from local Internet connections and the input of soldiers on the ground plus a warning and control system. Be it on sea, air, land, low orbit, or all of the above, the commander and his staff possess as much information as possible and can act on it. At least this is how it’s supposed to work.

If C4ISR sounds like combining science fiction and a desktop strategy game, it’s because that’s what C4ISR is. Eager to bank on the idea, every major defense contractor are selling their own C4ISR suites.

BAE Systems. Boeing. Elbit. General Dynamics. Lockheed Martin. Northrop Grumman. Rafael. Raytheon. Thales. United Technologies. Each have C4ISR “solutions” with the same features and few differences. In its current form, C4ISR depends heavily on unmanned drones and various surveillance toys as well as constant communication between units and individuals.

The endgame for C4ISR is the opaque conflicts of today and the near future is decided by who monopolizes the data. If you know everything about your enemy and the terrain, you win.

To envision C4ISR’s potential is exciting. But we still have to wait and see how it manifests itself in the coming years.

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