The working group that helped solve the coalition interoperability puzzle in Afghanistan is working across the U.S. Defense Department and with other nations to ensure that the lessons learned will be applied to future operations around the globe. Experience in creating the Afghan Mission Network may benefit warfighters worldwide, such as those in the Asia Pacific, and may even be applied to other missions, including homeland security and humanitarian assistance.
Coalition Interoperability Assurance and Validation (CIAV) program officials are trying to improve global interoperability by making the processes and methodologies honed in the combat theater a central part of the U.S. Joint Information Environment and the NATO Future Mission Network, which is known in the United States as the Partner Mission Environment. The lessons learned in Afghanistan can be applied to virtually any mission anywhere in the world, CIAV officials say. “We had a discussion [July 29th] with the Defense Department chief information officer regarding the Asia- Pacific rebalance. There are several people on our team who have spent a significant amount of time over in the Pacific Rim nations, my being one of them,” reports Todd Rissinger, CIAV chief of staff and chief of operations.
The Asia-Pacific region presents interoperability challenges that coalition forces didn’t face in Afghanistan, including maritime command, control and communications and the need to share data with troops as they transition from ships to shore. “CIAV is actually helping with that process, and I believe as time goes on we’ll probably be more integral to how that gets done,” Rissinger says.
Still, the individual types of missions, or mission threads—such as battlespace awareness, joint fires, counter-improvised explosive device, freedom of movement, force protection, service management, medical evacuation, and joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—will remain largely constant regardless of the geographic region. “The actual details are different, but the missions themselves are the same. Any geographic hot spot or area of concern that you go into is always going to have specifics associated with it, but the mission data itself is fairly fixed,” Rissinger explains.
An increased U.S. focus in the Asia- Pacific region likely will lead to more nations joining CIAV, officials say. For example, because Australia is joining, New Zealand may show interest at some point. “We are looking at things with U.S. Forces-Korea, and as we get a little bit broader footprint with the Asia-Pacific rebalance, that will naturally bring in a lot of different partners,” Rissinger says. “There is a lot more focus recently on the maritime aspect, which I believe will bring in several of these other nations.”
The working group started with four or five individuals who saw a need to improve interoperability among the nations sharing data on the Afghan Mission Network, which uses a NATO International Security Assistance Force secret network as the core to which each nation connects its own network. The team established mission-based processes and methodologies for validating operational interoperability and for confirming interoperability before new technologies or upgrades are added to the system. The group also works to ensure data is transmitted, formatted and presented in a way that all warfighters—regardless of nationality—have the same understanding of the information. CIAV now includes participants from the U.S. military services, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Defense Department chief information officer, the Joint Staff J-6 Assessment Division, the Joint Interoperability Test Command, NATO and 13 other nations.
Jeff Phipps, who chairs the CIAV, states that although the Army so far has been the primary player among the U.S. military services, the group is now working directly with the others. “We have three of the four services already participating, and we’re working at getting the Air Force involved now,” Phipps reveals.
International interest in the CIAV’s interoperability processes and methodologies also is growing. “We’ve added new nations this year. We’re going to add some new ones probably within the next six months,” Phipps reports. “A lot of those nations are joining not for what we’re doing now in Afghanistan, but for what we’ll be doing for future warfighting operations. They see the value in being able to have a distributed test environment and a mission-based methodology to be able to prepare for the next fight.” Officials clarify that under the CIAV construct, NATO is treated as a nation. Australia, Poland, Spain, Denmark and Finland are in the process of joining, and Turkey may join in the future.
Phipps points out that the CIAV is in transition as troops in Afghanistan move from a combat role. “Instead of ramping down from current operations, CIAV is actually ramping up for Future Mission Network and Mission Partner Environment support,” he says. “We’ve seen and done a lot of great things in the Afghanistan area of responsibility. A lot of nations around the globe understand the capability we provide, and they want to be a part of it. At a time when we’re starting to lose nations in Afghanistan, you would think we would start diminishing within the CIAV working group, but quite the opposite is true. We’re actually growing the CIAV for future operations.”
The CIAV team currently is defining requirements for a repository of information on established interoperability processes and methodologies. “We’re going to develop a repository, or use an existing repository, to archive data and possibly even include links to other authoritative data sources, so that we can help planners prepare for the next engagement,” Phipps says. Ideally, the process will allow planners simply to “type in a structured query and say, ‘I’m going to war with these five nations against these three nations’ and have the data pre-populate,” Phipps explains as one possible example.
Furthermore, those established processes and methodologies for ensuring interoperability could benefit other missions, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and homeland security, CIAV officials offer. “The majority of data we have to date primarily concerns military operations, but our goal is the broadest dissemination possible. So, all of the information we get, we would definitely like to have it shared among all government agencies,” Phipps says.
Still, despite the team’s expanded focus, CIAV officials say they do not intend to lose focus in Afghanistan. In fact, they endeavor to employ lessons learned from the drawdown in Iraq to the situation in Afghanistan. In Iraq, much of the communications infrastructure was dismantled, leaving some troops disconnected and in the dark, even though the situation was still dangerous [SIGNAL Magazine, June 2012, “When Warfighter Networks Go Dark”]. “While we’re looking at moving our troops out of Afghanistan, a 100 percent threat matrix remains—so the idea is to still execute the mission with the reduction of forces that we have and with the reduction of the infrastructure that we currently have in place,” Rissinger says. “If you reduce your infrastructure by 50 percent, you still have a 100 percent threat matrix that you have to address. You’re just going to have to be able to move data—in some cases, less data—with less equipment and fewer people and still thwart the threat.”
Rissinger asserts, however, that the situation in Afghanistan is different from Iraq because of the Afghan Mission Network, which fundamentally changed the way coalitions share data and fight. Prior to Afghanistan, each nation fought wars primarily using its own, separate, secret networks. “As they moved out of Iraq, they were fighting primarily on SIPRNET, the U.S. national secret network. The CIAV is working with U.S. Central Command and with the International Security Assistance Force on that issue in Afghanistan, and as things unfold, we’ll get more involved,” Rissinger states.
The CIAV team looks at much more than just technical interoperability. The focus instead is on mission-based interoperability, meaning that whatever the mission thread, the nations involved must share the same understanding of that data to ensure successful mission planning and execution. Rissinger uses the phrase “brain-to-brain” interoperability and explains that it takes into account many aspects, including the different cultures of the nations involved. For example, for medical evacuations, U.S. forces tend to gather and transmit a large amount of data on the wounded. Other nations, however, have strict limitations on what medical information can be shared.
Additionally, when working with the Afghan national forces, cultural sensitivities can vary from one tribal region to the next. “The way we execute CIAV is multidimensional and takes into account a lot of different moving parts under the hood. The process itself is not complicated, but it’s complex,” Rissinger says.