Northrop Grumman

Sep 15th 2017

How ‘Dunkirk’ Started the Digital Transformation of Warfare


Yesterday, today and tomorrow, time counts.

From the opening scene of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie Dunkirk the pressure of time is omnipresent. The sound of a ticking watch… tick-tock, tick-tock, grabs you in the chest, and it quickens your heart.

Through the movie’s remaining 107 minutes, the sound of the ticking watch subsides at points, but listen very closely and it’s still there. Accompanying Hans Zimmer’s score the persistent tick-tock of passing time is everywhere – it’s the driving beat. It’s the ever-present reminder that in battle, time is always in command.

Zimmer accentuated the endless tick-tock with a Shepard Tone, a musical illusion representing a constantly ascending pitch. It reminds our subconscious selves that not only is time the driving force, but it’s winnowing and getting more critical by the minute, the step, and the note.

Time was running out at Dunkirk in 1940 when the German war machine threatened to tighten its grip around the desperate forces of the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Poland, Belgium and France.

Time was just as pivotal two years later when the US Navy took on the Japanese Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Midway in the most significant battle of the War in the Pacific.

Both Dunkirk and Midway are telling illustrations of the impact of time in conflict. At Dunkirk, the Germans chose to halt their advance on the port for three days to consolidate, to avoid an Allied breakout. That precious time made it possible for the remarkable exploits portrayed so evocatively in Dunkirk.

At the Battle of Midway it was technology, rather than a hesitation, that gave the US Navy the elixir of time. For example, newly developed radar gave the US aircraft carriers the ability to see 100 miles in all weather conditions compared to the older binoculars used by the Japanese that had a range of 20 miles, and only in the best of weather. That early radar technology gave the USN precious extra time to prepare for incoming aircraft. This, and other technological advances, coupled with—first and foremost—the military exploits of USN servicemen, resulted in the loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers. The Imperial Navy would never recover from that blow.

Leap forward 75 years and in 2017 digital transformation is making speed and time more important still.

To win in the digital battle space, our forces must act at a faster tempo than their adversaries; as US military strategist John Boyd has suggested, they must get inside their adversaries’ Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop. Doing so will make the US and its allies unpredictable, it will generate confusion and disorder among adversaries.

Northrop Grumman (NG) is committed to ensuring our forces maintain a decisive advantage by providing them with mission systems that harness the disruptive force of digital transformation. The engineers at NG are developing advanced software-defined, hardware enabled mission systems that operate at previously unimaginable speeds. These integrated, agile and interoperable C4ISR systems will provide critical decision-making intelligence and allow defense forces to sense, share, collaborate, and act with greater speed and confidence.

The three heart-quickening stories told in Dunkirk operate on time scales of a week, a day and an hour. In the stories told of future conflict those will seem like luxuriously relaxed paces. Tomorrow’s battles will be won and lost in seconds, microseconds and nanoseconds.

Tomorrow’s digital battles will be fought in the now cavernous space between tick and tock. Learn how you can be apart of them!