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In the trenchesExploiting complexity: DARPA’s Mosaic Warfare vision

Published 11 August 2017

DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO) seeks to turn complexity into a powerful new asymmetric weapon via rapidly composable networks of low-cost sensors, multi-domain command and control nodes, and cooperative manned and unmanned systems. The “mosaic warfare” concept envisions a system in which individual components can respond to needs in real time to create desired outcomes.

DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO) last week unveiled its updated approach to winning or deterring future conflicts during Sync with STO Day, held in Arlington, Virginia. At the event—which attracted about 300 innovators and entrepreneurs, more than half of whom had never worked with DARPA before—STO program managers outlined new areas of interest and held discussions with attendees to explore innovative technology solutions for strategic national security challenges.

DARPA says that the foundation of STO’s new strategy rests on the recognition that traditional U.S. asymmetric technology advantage—such as highly advanced satellites, stealth aircraft, or precision munitions—today offer a reduced strategic value because of growing global access to comparable high-tech systems and components, many of which are now commercially available. Additionally, the high cost and sometimes decades-long development timelines for new military systems can’t compete with the fast refresh rate of electronics component technology on the commercial market, which can make new military systems obsolete before they’re delivered.

STO’s updated strategy seeks a new asymmetric advantage—one that imposes complexity on adversaries by harnessing the power of dynamic, coordinated, and highly autonomous composable systems.

“We’ve developed a technology-based vision that would enable highly complex, strategic moves by composing multiple contributing systems to enable what might be thought of as ‘mosaic warfare,’ in which individual components can respond to needs in real time to create desired outcomes,” said Tom Burns, director of STO. “The goal is to fight as a network to create a chain of effects—or, more accurately because these effects are not linear, ‘effects webs’—to deter and defeat adversaries across multiple scales of conflict intensity. This could be anything from conventional force-on-force battles to more nebulous ‘Gray Zone’ conflicts, which don’t reach the threshold of traditional military engagements but can be equally disruptive and subversive.”