International C2 Journal: Issues

Vol 2, No 1

Guest Editor’s Introductory Remarks


There have been many theories of Awareness in the two decades since Endsley first offered a theory of Situation Awareness (SA). The term has come into widespread usage—often without any understanding of the term, and of the related processes. The aim of this Special Edition is to present more recent viewpoints (relating to C2) as may stimulate a serious and informed discussion.


One of the key components of effective Command and Control (C2) is that of “knowing what’s going on.” This is usually expressed in terms relating to “Awareness,” but the way in which “Awareness” is discussed is, itself, a matter of some contention. The aim of this Special Edition is to present recent approaches to “Awareness,” as will provide a broader view of the topic, and encourage a serious debate on the most appropriate use of the term. In doing this, a number of questions will emerge.

In the context of C2—notably as expressed in the publications of the CCRP—Awareness is usually treated as a noun, preceded by a modifier. Most often this modifier is the word “Situation,” leading to the expression Situation Awareness. Situation Awareness itself is generally regarded as being some form of mental (or cognitive) construct. Thus, Awareness is the individual percept of “what’s going on.”

For an in-depth understanding of the issues involved, it is recommended that the reader should study the following CCRP publications carefully:

Understanding Information Age Warfare (Alberts, Gartska, Hayes and Signori; 2001)

  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 2 (particularly this chapter).

Information Age Transformation (Alberts; 2002)

  1. Chapter 10
  2. Chapter 12
  3. Chapter 13

Power to the Edge (Alberts and Hayes; 2003)

  1. Chapter 6
  2. Chapter 7

Understanding Command and Control (Alberts and Hayes; 2006)

  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 3
  3. Chapter 5
  4. Chapter 7

Planning: Complex Endeavors (Alberts and Hayes; 2007)

  1. Chapter 7

These suggested readings will also touch on the concepts of shared information and shared awareness. Indeed, the final reference bears directly on shared awareness and situational understanding, and makes the cognitive aspect particularly clear.

To see the way in which different approaches to Awareness have developed, it seems appropriate to start with an historical view. The study of Awareness can be said to have begun with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) seeking some proof of his own existence, and leading to the famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” Today we would refer to this as relating to Self Awareness, and this introduces a second modifier.

Awareness was seldom considered by the early sociologists and psychologists, and, in the latter discipline, it was probably only the diminishing influence of behaviourism in the post-WW2 era that permitted the use of yet more modifiers. Today, it would be common—in appropriate circles—to talk of Social Awareness, Political Awareness, Commercial Awareness, Environmental Awareness, Spatial Awareness, etc., introducing yet more modifiers. Spatial Awareness is of some military interest, in that it can be paired with Spatial Disorientation. This can be found in references to pilots becoming spatially disoriented when trying to fly at night, or in cloud, without the use of instruments. Similar effects have been observed in the earlier computer-controlled simulators (latterly Synthetic Environments), such as SIMNET or AGPT, when a trainee had problems adapting to an unaccustomed visual display, resulting in total disorientation—or a complete loss of spatial awareness.

The expression Situational Awareness came into use as a concept in the sport psychology community in the 1970s, generally using the acronym SA, but without any formal study being directed towards it. Some writers have traced the concept back to Air Combat in both WW1 and WW2, and there can be little doubt that part of what was termed the Boyd Cycle, and became better known as the OODA-loop, has a substantial Awareness (and especially Cognitive) component. In the 1980s, the work of Mica Endsley introduced Situation Awareness, but again using the acronym SA, and a formal approach to the measurement of this construct (SAGAT). Although both the Endsley model, and the SAGAT technique, have been challenged on a variety of grounds (see Hone, Martin and Ayres, 2006 (amongst others), for some discussion of this), they remain the de facto standard approach to the study of awareness in several areas. It should also be noted that Endsley is consistent in her use of the term “Situation Awareness” throughout her work. 

SAGAT (or the Situation Awareness Global Assessment Tool) was probably the first attempt to measure this construct that we call Situation Awareness. As such, it has been subjected to much criticism on the grounds that it requires an interruption of the task in order to ask probe questions. To take this as a blanket criticism is to miss two important points. The first is that SAGAT requires an extensive analysis of the task and its context before the probe questions can be formulated. Second, is that several alternatives to SAGAT have been proposed—many of which are open to the same criticism as that applied to the tool that they would seek to supplant.

The work of Endsley is not universally accepted, as will be seen in the following pages; however, it must be pointed out that many of those who disagree with Endsley will actually rely on some part of her work. One can find instances of researchers who totally reject the SAGAT methodology, but base their alternative (often a lightly modified SAGAT with another name) on the Endsley Level 1-2-3 approach. The 3-Questions Model of Awareness (e.g. Hone, Martin and Ayres, 2006; Hone, Whitworth and Martin, 2006) argues against SAGAT and the Level 1-2-3 view, but is firmly based on the original Endsley definition; while a paper in the 2007 ASNE HSI Symposium (Adams, 2007) argued that there were in fact four levels of awareness—and then went on to use SAGAT. Note here that a current article on Situation Awareness on Wikipedia argues that SA has a multivariate nature (and multiple interactions argue against a linear process), and holds that different SA measures do not correlate well—citing inter alia Durso et al (1995). This would again suggest that there is a strong need to define “SA,” and to agree on the qualifiers to be used with Awareness. When this is done, it may be easier to work toward an accepted measure of whatever “modifier-Awareness” term is under study.

In 2004, the British Royal Aeronautical Society published a list (RAeS, 2004) of what they referred to as “definitions of SA.” This featured twenty-three “definitions,” of which two were attributed to Endsley, and of which several were not definitions at all. Leaving the debate over the expansion of SA (below) to one side, it is legitimate to ask of any researcher if they offer a definition or a description of awareness. Thus, the Endsley definition, by starting “Situation Awareness is …” must be regarded as a definition.

In contrast, the 3-Questions model (e.g. Hone, Martin and Whitworth, 2006) which asks:

Who is where?

What are they doing now?

What will they do next?

is clearly descriptive, but the almost identical approach of Crew Training International (possibly the largest non-military training organisation for combat aircrew) which holds (Sprague, 2003) that:

SA is "an accurate perception of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen."

is clearly a definition. The definition/description measure may be of use in evaluating future approaches to the Awareness question.

In C2 terms, the biggest problems have arisen from the use of SA as a shorthand way of referring to two related, but distinctly different, expressions. Although “Situation Awareness” and “Situational Awareness” appear to be similar, they are semantically different, and the use of the acronym SA to refer to both has led to the notion that they are identical. Situation is a noun and situational is an adjective, thus when used as modifiers they carry a different meaning. Use of the acronym SA is often followed with a reference to an “SA display,” leading directly to the belief that displayed data (in whatever form) is the SA—and hence to a failure to acknowledge that Awareness is a mental construct. Many readers will recall the expression “The map is not the terrain,” and see a direct parallel.

The papers

One person who has spent much time considering the problems of shared awareness, and shared mental models, is Eduardo Salas. In the past, he and his colleagues have offered a range of models relating to shared awareness at different points in a military hierarchy. Here, he and his team write about the relationship between information and awareness. Further, they consider the dynamic nature of the C2 environment. It must therefore be considered that Awareness (as a cognitive construct) will vary over time, and that different factors may influence that variation.

The paper from Drury and Scott considers Awareness as related to UAVs, looking at this from both the human operator and the UAV viewpoints and of the interaction between them. Note that four different interactions are identified, all of which will have to be considered from both the C2 and Awareness standpoints, but is should be noted that the four interactions may not all be of equal frequency or importance. Since it is generally considered that future military operations will see increasing use being made of UAVs, this paper looks toward the immediate future. 

It is a basic tenet of NCW/NEC that increased information flow (leading to an increase in shared awareness) will lead to self-synchronization—with a consequent improvement in operational tempo. Recall the common theme from the CCRP publications mentioned above that “Awareness” is a Cognitive activity and not (per se) an Information activity. This does highlight the need for a study of the information that humans extract from battle management displays, as well as how different individuals process—perceive—the same information, and also with the change in percept over time.

The Questions

Any discussion with people with an interest in Awareness will reveal that there are several fundamental questions to be addressed if the topic is to be moved forward. Some of these are touched on in the following papers, but it can be argued that the following points will have to be addressed:

Radius of interest?

It seems clear that an Infantry Platoon Commander will have a degree of Awareness that encompasses a smaller geographical area, and a shorter time-scale than an Armoured Platoon Commander. It also seems clear that both of these will have a smaller radius of interest than their Divisional Commander. There are, however, a number of intermediate command levels that must also be accommodated in any approach. To a low-level commander, the few moments of even the shortest probe may have an adverse effect on the situation, as can be seen in Bellavia and Bruning (2007); at a much higher echelon, several minutes may not have any detectable influence at all.

How can we accommodate different military activities?

The problem of Radius of Interest is magnified when different military activities are considered. Aviation assets are employed in a different manner to land forces, and Navy assets will be used in a manner that is different again. From the C2 perspective, there may be a single commander at one (rather high) level, with three, or even four, different services represented immediately below that level.

How can we accommodate civilian influences?

Much of modern conflict is no longer “symmetrical”, and the battle-space—if the term is still useful—may well have several different categories of people present. The historical Blue and Red (as Own Force and Opposing Force) model may also have to contend with a local population that may or may not wish to take sides, and with the presence of NGOs or “Humanitarian” organisations, who may be neutral or who may favour one side over another. These last two categories will probably have a greater impact on the Awareness of a ground commander than on the other two services, but it cannot be assumed that this will always be the case. Consider that a carrier-launched air mission to destroy a bridge will involve three service viewpoints and could impact on one or both of the civilian categories just mentioned, and then consider all the different radii of interest, and one can now see the magnitude of the problem. This is not just a hypothetical example, the use of a bridge as a river crossing has had to be denied to the OPFOR, even with civilians nearby, in both the Balkans and in Iraq.

Should any probes or assessments be truly random or to a time schedule?

Probes or assessments carried out according to a fixed time schedule are open to the criticism that they are not truly scientific and impartial. The use of a rigid schedule may cause a researcher to miss an event (or even all events) of major significance, while responding only to significant events may lead to a biased picture. 

Can Awareness be trained?

This can be seen as a very simple question or as a very complex one. One answer is: YES—we have been doing this for years. Another is:  What do you mean by awareness? A third response is: Do you mean train or develop? 

Taking it as given that Awareness is a mental/cognitive activity, and that Awareness preceded by a modifier is a cognitive construct, then it can be argued that the processes by which Officers and NCOs learn their C2 and Tactical skills also help to develop an awareness of the battle-space as appropriate to their function. Against this, if awareness—as SA—is just the sum of the sensor and other data presented on some form of display, then it must be accepted that this is impossible to train by definition. Simple training exercises were developed for a number of sports over the last four decades. The purpose of all of these exercises was to enable the performers to focus on the task in hand, while remaining aware of other factors on their environment. This too could be seen as training, or as skill development. Hence, any training program that can enable trainees to improve the way in which they identify the key features (or elements, or components) of their environment, and to adapt their actions accordingly, must be seen as developing (or training) the particular cognitive processes that result in the percept that is “awareness.”

Can we devise a better term?

If it is accepted—and this is far from universal—that the biggest problem with SA is that the acronym is normally expanded into two terms with different, yet similar, meanings, then the question of an alternative term becomes relevant. The present writer has suggested (Hone et al 2006; 2008) that the expression “Battle-space awareness” may be more relevant. If one thinks only of C2 as applied to combat, then this may well be right; if, however, the circumstances are those of (say) a civil emergency, or of disaster relief—both of which require good C2—then it would clearly be wrong to speak of the “Battle-space”. Others have argued for the term “Situation Assessment”, but this implies some form of process, rather than its resultant mental construct. Another potential approach is to consider Situation Awareness as a high level expression, and with the lower level terms having different modifiers to suit the circumstances. Thus, “Battlespace Awareness” may serve for combat, “Incident Awareness” for civil emergency situations, “Operation Awareness” for organisations engaged in peace-keeping activities, etc. Note here that the DOD Dictionary of Acronyms lists six different meanings for “SA,” but has none for “BA,” and three for “CA” (including Combat Assessment), and note also the comment in the Drury and Scott paper about avoiding blanket statements.

As military operations are now increasingly multi-force and multi-national, the potential for misunderstanding is markedly increased, so that removing even one source of confusion can have a beneficial effect. Consider that beneath the umbrella of NATO, it is quite possible to have an English-speaking Commander whose orders are mentally translated into (say) Dutch by his Chief-of-staff, mentally processed and translated back into English to be passed to a 2nd Echelon Commander (say, French) who repeats the double translation process to brief his Italian subordinate. Put just one uncertain term into that process and there is our potential for misunderstanding. Intelligence reports coming up the command chain—which will contribute to command awareness (and “Command Awareness” is another possible term)—will be subject to the same multiple translation process. Can one suggest that, whatever model is ultimately accepted for Awareness, it must be sufficiently robust as to accommodate the coalition C2 processes, whatever they may be, and whatever doctrine they may follow.


There are several issues raised (explicitly or implicitly) in the papers here. From the C2 perspective, the most important are:

  1. That awareness (with any modifier) is internal to the individual, and does not reside on any information display.
  2. That while awareness resides in each individual; we must consider the interpersonal relationships. These can be of the individual-group-team, or of the “Blue”/“Red” forms (and frequently both).
  3. There is a clear need for a standard terminology that relates directly to C2 issues.

There should be enough material here to start the thought processes going ...


The CCRP books are not listed here—every reader is presumed to know where the CCRP website can be found, and probably its URL, and the publications can be read on-line.

Adams, J. A., (2007) Unmanned vehicle situation awareness. Paper presented at the American Society of Naval Engineers Human-System Integration Symposium. Annapolis, Maryland, USA.

Bellavia, D. and Bruning, J.R. (2007) House to House: A Tale of Modern Warfare. Simon and Schuster Ltd, NY.

Durso, F. T., Truitt, T. R., Hackworth, C. A., Crutchfield, J. M., Nikolic, D., Moertl, P. M., Ohrt, D., & Manning, C. A. (1995). Expertise and chess: A pilot study comparing situation awareness methodologies. In D.J. Garland & M.R. Endsley (Eds.), Experimental analysis and measurement of situation awareness (pp. 295-303). Daytona Beach, FL: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Press.

Hone, G., Martin, L., and Ayres, R., (2006) Awareness—does the acronym “SA” still have any value? Proceedings of the 11th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium: Coalition Command and Control in the Networked Era. held at Cambridge UK. Washington DC: The DoD-CCRP (on CD-ROM).

Hone, G., Whitworth, I. And Martin, L. (2006) Awareness is not a Standalone Concept. Proceedings of the 25th Army Science Conference, Orlando FL (on CD-ROM).

Hone, G., Whitworth, I. And Farmilo, A. (2008) The Awareness-Order-Action cycle and Battle-space Awareness. Proceedings of the 13th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium: C2 for Complex Endeavors.  Held at Bellevue, WA. Washington DC: The DoD-CCRP (on CD-ROM).

RAeS (2004) This URL was currently available on September 30th 2008.

Sprague, Ted (2003) How good is your Situational Awareness? Combat Edge Jan 2003.

Note: One point that does not seem to be generally considered is that of the outcome of a false positive, and one must accept the possibility that a commander may miss-read the situation, (effectively not having good awareness) make a decision that was correct for that miss-reading, still defeat the opposing force, and be lauded for some exceptional tactical skills that were but chance.