The United States has extensive and mature strategic situational awareness capabilities across all domains (air, land, maritime, space, and cyber) that help to characterize the operating environment, detect and respond to attacks, and discern actual attacks from false alarms across the spectrum of conflict, both conventional and nuclear. The U.S. military has always relied on these capabilities at the strategic level, but over the last thirty to forty years these capabilities have increasingly become more important at the tactical and operational level as technological advances have enabled more granular tracking and detection of enemy forces and communications and coordination between different sensors and shooters to devastating effect. This combination of situational awareness capabilities across all three levels of war and all domains has provided the United States unrivaled strategic situational awareness and has become a lynchpin of U.S. military doctrine and planning. However, the enemy gets a vote, and potential adversaries like China and Russia have focused on enhancing their own strategic situational awareness capabilities and developing ways to disrupt, degrade, and destroy U.S. strategic situational awareness.

Historical Developments

The origin of the United States’ current situational awareness capabilities largely traces back to the Cold War and the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Over the course of the Cold War, the United States’ strategic situational awareness capacities evolved as the Soviet challenge changed. Initially, U.S. strategic situational awareness efforts focused on monitoring and evaluating the Soviet’s nuclear development program. As the Soviets achieved nuclear parity and U.S. doctrine switched from Eisenhower’s massive retaliation to Kennedy’s flexible-response, early-warning alerts and surveillance and reconnaissance of Soviet nuclear forces became U.S. priorities.1 During the mid-1970s, U.S. strategic situational awareness capabilities evolved again as shifts in the conventional military balance2 and U.S.-Soviet nuclear parity necessitated the U.S. develop ways to “use U.S. technological advantages to offset the quantitative advantage of Soviet forces.”3 Under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Bill Perry, the U.S. focused on developing three main capabilities: command, control, communications, and intelligence; defense suppression (stealth); and <precision guidance. Combined in a system-of-systems approach, these three capabilities formed a reconnaissance-strike complex in which tactical intelligence from several sensors flowed into an integrated C&C system which pushed that collective data to ‘shooters’ equipped with precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to enable a degree of precision never before seen.

At the end of the Cold War, the success of the Second Offset’s reconnaissance-strike complex in the 1991 Gulf War drove an insatiable demand for increasingly expansive command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities integrated into an increasingly networked architecture of high-tech sensors and shooters. The demand for C4ISR capabilities and capacities only increased during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the permissive threat environment and technological advances, such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), created new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) paradigms and demands. However, in more recent years DoD has turned its attention towards the challenges that Russia and Chinese advances in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities pose for the United States strategic situational awareness.

  1. David Alan Rosenberg, “U.S. Nuclear War Planning, 1945-1960” in Strategic Nuclear Targeting, ed. Desmond Ball and Jeffery Richelson (Ithaca, New York: 1986), p. 65. 

  2. The effectiveness of the Arab armies’ usage of precision-guided munitions and surface-to-air missile systems to destroy Israeli tanks and aircrafts during the 1973 Yom Kippur War forced military planners to re-think fundamental assumptions such as tanks only being capable of killing tanks, and the viability of air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons. 

  3. William J. Perry, “Desert Storm and Deterrence”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 1991), p. 68. 

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