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We Are Losing Sight of the Prize

June 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

I am concerned—despite the discussions that take place in favor of information sharing, information security, network-centric operations and communications support to the warfighter—that the U.S. military remains a platform-centric force. That same case may be made for many NATO and other allied nations. Military leaders throughout the Free World continue to focus their discussions on tanks, ships and aircraft. These warfighting platforms are important big-ticket items that have a key role in warfare. But, to move from our industrial-age mindset to today’s information age, I suggest that virtually every platform planning session include a discussion on how that platform fits into the warfighting network.

In fairness, some planners are taking steps to move us in the right direction. For example, experts have pushed for radars in fighter aircraft to become a part of the network’s sensor web. Others have suggested placing communications relays on ships, large aircraft and unmanned vehicles to move terrestrial communications. Many advances are being suggested and some changes are taking place, but neither is occurring fast enough. Platform planning still focuses on the engine, the hull or the wing. Command and control enters the discussion usually as an afterthought.

This is not to denigrate the importance of modern military platforms. Equipped with the latest technologies, they can bring a favorable end to conflict while reducing casualties on both sides. But no longer can you determine your force strength just by counting platforms. Granted, there is a fixed cost to warfighting—to win you must bring a certain number of platforms to the battle. But if your variable cost—the networking—is applied properly, then the amount of warfighting capability that you can get out of the fixed cost—the platforms—increases exponentially.

No technology ever won a war by itself. Any effective military technology enables the warfighter to win. And today the greatest enabler is the network that serves the force. We have spent considerable time talking about a capability-based force. Now is the time to enable it by tailoring the process, not the product.

Happily, we are seeing part of this process change take place in support to warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military services and the U.S. Defense Department are rushing new technologies and systems to these brave men and women who face a threat that adapts and changes on almost a daily basis. Many of these new capabilities are information technologies that have emerged outside of the conventional acquisition route. Commercially developed technology is serving the warfighter exceptionally well, and network-centric requirements from the war zone have become the catalyst for change.

The next step is to institutionalize our ability to equip forces with these types of technologies by reforming both the requirements and acquisition processes. When the late Art Cebrowski put forth the concept of network-centric operations, it garnered adherents who recognized how it could enhance the effectiveness of existing platforms. But at that time, few people realized how truly revolutionary the network would become, and we have been slow to reform how we value network-centric operations vis-à-vis platforms.

Today, the network is more than just a force multiplier, as people used to say. The network now is the architecture for the modern military force. Transformation cannot succeed without a network that meets its needs.

If we are really serious about a networked force with coalition interoperability, then we must make networked command and control an entry fee for both our requirements and acquisition professionals. No discussion or presentation should be allowed to proceed without including networking early in the process. This could even be a quantified requirement for system briefings. Early in a briefing, planners must relate how a platform is going to fit into—and contribute to—the network to improve the warfighting capability of the entire force. If we are going to build a vital warfighting or support platform, then we must show how it will fit into the networked force early in the process.

It will not happen naturally. The large cost of platforms tends to overshadow their network centricity. It will take direction on the part of policy makers in the form of demanding accountability for a platform’s network centricity.

The best way technology can give our warfighter an edge in Iraq and Afghanistan is through network-centric capabilities. And, to ensure that we lay the proper foundation for a state-of-the-art transformed force, we must make sure network centricity is a requirement early in every platform acquisition and requirements discussion.