Sitting in the cockpit of her A-10 Warthog somewhere over Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base on Jan. 10, Maj. Olivia Elliott flipped a switch. In an instant her blunt, twin-engine warplane with the 30-millimeter cannon in the nose was transformed. No longer just the Air Force’s most heavily-armed attack jet, now the A-10 was also a flying wireless router, providing Internet connectivity to anyone in range — and with the right password.

The final test of the Network-Tactical, or Net-T, upgrade to the Northrop Grumman LITENING and Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pods, carried by A-10s and other warplanes, is the latest in a long chain of communications breakthroughs by the U.S. military and the defense industry.

From handheld devices capable of streaming video from overhead drones to encrypted data-links allowing warships to share radar data and cue targets for each other’s missiles the Pentagon has debuted a dizzying array of new systems meant to build the information connections in a network over the last 10 years.

But the services have not changed how they are organized to make use of the new ways of sharing information. Without a profound shift in the way American forces are structured and led, Net-T and other networking technologies will never meet their full potential, according to one leading military thinker and advocate for “network-centric” warfare.

“The problem is not at a technological level,” John Arquilla, a former RAND analyst now teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, tells Breaking Defense. “The real questions are organizational and doctrinal in nature.”

Arquilla literally wrote the book on netcentric warfare. His monograph Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy, published in November 2001, anticipated the current era of regenerative terrorist cells, fleet-footed insurgent groups and adaptive criminal gangs. Today even the Russian ground forces and the Chinese navy are beginning to adopt networked structures, Arquilla says.

He and other theorists believe that it takes a network to beat a network — that U.S. forces should be as nimble and autonomous as their enemies and rivals. These qualities demand speedy, flexible and reliable communications such as those under development by military and industry labs.

That means organizational changes must come first. “We are still an Army, Air Force and Navy built of small numbers of large things,” Arquilla points out. “A small number of divisions, a small number of Brigade Combat Teams, 11 carrier groups, a couple dozen air wings.”

“If we’re truly networked,” he continues, “we have to be a military of a lot of little things. That’s something most of our military has a hard time wrapping its head around.”

Sure enough, the Navy’s attempt to build large numbers of small, inexpensive warships evolved — some would say “devolved” — into the Littoral Combat Ship, which at 3,000 tons displacement and more than $600 million per copy, is anything but little or cheap.

Likewise, the Air Force briefly considered acquiring low-cost light attack planes but ultimately abandoned the scheme, while also scaling back purchases of armed drones — another network-friendly system. Since 9/11 the Army has shifted to a brigade-centric structure rather than a division-based one, but with 5,000 soldiers or more apiece, brigades can hardly be considered small. And divisions still rule the command structure.

Most importantly, a military of “little things” would need a less linear command structure. “Traditionally, the military is a hierarchy,” Arquilla says. Information is concentrated in the hands of commanders who issue orders down a chain to units heavily dependent on their superiors for direction. “We tend to retain … far too much central control.”

Networks, by contrast, are about the “lateral, flat movement of information out to edges of the entire force,” Arquilla says. Highly autonomous small units would all have free access to the intelligence they need to make their own decisions. Top commanders would watch from a distance as the battle unfolds, interjecting orders only when a unit deviates from the loose overall plan.

Cutting-edge communications technology can, in theory, provide unprecedented situational awareness to even the most far-flung, networked small units. But the technical capability is irrelevant if the small units don’t exist. Even if they did, no amount of tech could give these units the authority to act on that information.

The Pentagon is brimming with networking hardware that could facilitate Arquilla’s proposed flat structure. The Air Force is developing a new data-link to allow stealth fighters and bombers to swap data. Meanwhile a growing fleet of modified business jets and long-range drones fitted with radio gateways serves as the flying branch’s airborne “universal translator,” able to connect a wide range of communications devices on the ground and in the air.

Not to be outdone, in a semi-annual series of exercises in Texas, the Army is refining blimp-based radio relays, mobile satellite-communications vehicles, battlefield smartphones and a host of other networking gear.

Net-T is only the latest entry. The requirement for the pod-based wireless router emerged last summer from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, home to Air Force Materiel Command, which maintains and upgrades the flying branch’s planes and other hardware.

“They were looking specifically at getting data transfer without line of sight,” Capt. Joseph Rojas, the lead engineer for the Net-T test effort, tells Breaking Defense. The Air Force determined that tweaks to existing Sniper and LITENING targeting pods were the most expedient path to a working router.

Rojas’ team hung the pods on B-1 bombers and A-10, F-15 and F-16 fighters. Operators on the ground or on boats in the Gulf of Mexico were given handheld Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver-5 terminals, or ROVER-5s, and instructed to send each other data via the airborne WiFi.

Rojas’ team completed 13 sorties and eight ground tests between October and January, wrapping with Elliott’s A-10 flight two weeks ago. On a technical level, the results were encouraging. “It literally establishes IP addresses and can use chat, can push any file type across,” Rojas says. “It’s literally like my network at home.”

After additional refinement, Net-T could become operational in 2014, according to Rojas. “The possibilities are endless,” Elliott boasts.

But Arquilla says that the new device won’t make much of a difference given the military’s existing structure. He points out that one of his students cobbled together a system similar to Net-T in Afghanistan the early 2000s, breaking “all the procurement rules” in order to do so. That improvised system did not transform the American way of war any more than Net-T is likely to.

The necessary changes can happen only after the current generation of senior officers retires. “Right now all the people in general ranks had their formative experience in Operation Desert Storm, the last blast of conventional warfare,” Arquilla argues.

By contrast, “mid-career officers who have had their fundamental experiences in the conflicts of the last decade realize that small, networked and nimble is much better than the overwhelming force paradigm,” he adds. “We’re a decade out from a serious change in the way we do business.”

Then, Net-T and communications systems like it could truly become transformational for the entire US military.

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