Defense Speak Interpreted: C4ISR

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Only the U.S. Defense Department would lump together seven concepts—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—into a single acronym: C4ISR. But once you are conversant in “Defense Speak Interpreted,” you can easily convey C4ISR concepts to other defense employees.

In short, C4ISR has been called the “nervous system” of the military [1]. It truly is a collection of subsystems—all working together to accomplish the desired mission. Certainly, the brain has command of the human nervous system, but it depends on the senses of sight and hearing (surveillance and reconnaissance) for inputs. Likewise, control is the actions of human muscles and thought to accomplish tasks.

Let’s look at the command and control problem at three levels:

  1. The local level: Traditionally thought of as command posts for the Army.
  2. The regional level: Thought of as the theater level for the Army or the taskforce level for the Navy.
  3. The inter-service level: For integrated warfare campaigns.

All of these need huge data inputs and are becoming more problematic to sort out the bigger the geography. And perhaps even worse, the speed of decision making needs to be improved—based on modern electronic communications—and the nature of warfare is changing; much more is anticipated to be dependent on quick decisions on a local basis. And for good decisions, accurate instant information is needed—hence the growing emphasis on integrated information systems and C4ISR.

Recent columns have dealt with remotely controlled vehicles, hypersonics, and cybersecurity. Both remotely controlled vehicles and hypersonics will react to changing conditions detected by their own sensors, but they are initiated with the latest information that can be programmed in at the time of launch. A key aspect of cybersecurity is to prevent false information from reaching these artificial intelligence-driven weapons to jam or disrupt them.


Let’s take a look at some of the current debates concerning C4ISR. First is the 5G networking international conflict. The U.S. has implemented a boycott of all Huawei equipment with the contention that it was possible for hardware to recognize key information traveling over 5G networks and send that back to the Chinese military through the partial government ownership of Huawei. Next is the defense complaint that the FCC recently delegated some of the 1–2-gigahertz spectrum to Ligado Corporation and that those wavelengths will interfere with nearby channels used by the DoD for global positioning.

This brings us back to GPS—the system built into so many weapons and targeting systems. Suffice it to say that devious minds are thinking up new ways to jam or modify GPS in case of international conflict. That would render many weapons systems inoperable or cause weapons to strike non-existent targets. The concept is not new, as the British spoofed the German bomber targeting radars in WW2 to drop bombs far from their intended targets.

Another big current C4ISR issue is the granting of the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud operation contract to Microsoft rather than Amazon. The appeal of this award has stopped (at least until August 17) the work at implementing this huge cloud information system as a core coordination effort for defense.

Finally, we have a new phrase—geospatial intelligence—in growing importance. That is, the U.S. has established the Space Force as a new service branch. That service will interact with the traditional Army, Navy, and Air Force with the information it can gather from satellites about activity on earth.

The information integration efforts have definitely been costly and controversial. The Army has historically used a Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A). One estimate from a Defense One article [1] pegged the effort at $28 billion already, and a new contract has been issued to Palantir Corporation after their successful lawsuit to block a previous contract award. At least, the Army is using a cross-functional team to try to sort this out. Reportedly, around 90% of any battlefield situations require improvisation—all the better to have an excellent C4ISR system on hand.


One of the downsides of cybersecurity is the permission required to access information in various networks. In a battle situation, there is no time to secure this permission. One help can be the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems melded into defense. This is one of the reasons defense is pursuing 5G technology. Secure but unclassified (SBU) is the phrase for this meld.

Recent columns have talked about the speed that weapons can be brought to bear. This means that reaction times are reduced, and more inter-service data is needed called interoperability. The Army calls this the common operating environment, which is very dependent on C4ISR.

Historically, service branches could talk by radio with each other. However, voice is a horribly slow method of transferring information such as position, number, movement, etc. If this data is uploaded to the cloud, the transfer is much faster. And with data coming in from satellites or drones, there is no voice for transmission.

And to help speed up this data transfer by using interpretation, use AI. The Pentagon has established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) to keep all the service branches on the same path. Just recently, the JAIC awarded Booz Allen Hamilton an $800 million task order to deliver AI-enabled products to support warfighting operations. This will be instrumental in embedding AI decision-making and analysis across the DoD.

In reviewing “information warfare”—a new term—it is obvious that U.S. adversaries are serious about catching up or surpassing America’s capabilities. It is estimated that within five years, Asia will be the largest market for AI-enabled C4ISR tools.

While improving C4ISR may seem easy, unfortunately, it is not. First is the acquisition process for nebulous, information-based technologies. They do not lend themselves well to the “specific weapon” acquisition process of the Defense Federal Acquisition Requirement’s (DFAR’s) process. Secondly, traditionally the specific weapons systems are called out in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed every year by Congress and effective with the new fiscal year starting October 1. Again, concepts like C4ISR are not easy to budget.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid of the term C4ISR; just think of it as the central nervous system for the DoD.


  1. Defense One, “C4ISR: The Military’s Nervous System.”


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