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Battlefield Information Systems—Wake up and Smell the Coffee

March 2003
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

If there is one issue that has been a common thread throughout the spread of military information systems over the past few decades, it is interoperability. What once was a nuisance quickly grew into a major challenge as we became more reliant on information technology to prevail in the way we fight. What once was a marginal issue grew to dominate command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) as a key requirement for all future systems. Yet, as interoperability continues to increase in importance, as a goal it remains stubbornly elusive.

During AFCEA events, senior leadership in all government organizations—both uniformed and civil service—freely discuss the need for interoperable, plug-and-play battlefield information systems. Senior industry officials discuss the same thing. So, it is clear that the government, military and commercial leaders of our nation are doing all that they can to ensure that systems purchased with dark blue Navy dollars, light blue Air Force dollars and dark green Army dollars operate together.

So, why haven’t we achieved interoperability? To paraphrase Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

Our national leaders continue to be frustrated because the rest of us just don’t get it. I’m addressing the master sergeants, the colonels, the commanders, the majors, the captains, the master chiefs and the civil service employees under GS-15: It is time for you to listen. Your marriage to legacy systems, legacy contractors and legacy ideas indicates the thoughts of a dinosaur versus the ideas of the transforming U.S. Defense Department that we must have to defeat the faceless, nameless enemy that threatens democracy today.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is so frustrated that he is considering taking funding for C4I away from the services and having the Joint Forces Command administer that money to achieve the interoperability that our warfighters and our leaders are demanding.

Shame on us. Shame on the master sergeants, the colonels, the commanders, the majors, the captains, the master chiefs and the civil service employees if we make it necessary for the secretary of defense to make this enormous type of change—which the service secretaries and chiefs do not agree with—to achieve interoperability.

I’m not talking about bad people or even bad workers. I’m talking about well-minded people stuck in a mode of operation that is counterproductive to even their own wishes. A recently retired three-star commander admitted as much at an AFCEA show recently. He allowed that when he was in the military, he thought that he was moving his command in the right direction. Instead, with his new industry perspective, he realizes now that it was the master sergeants, the colonels, the commanders, the majors, the captains, the master chiefs and the civil service employees who were making the decisions for buying the information technology—and their ideas on interoperability differed substantially from his.

The mind-set of senior leaders, for example, may be to strive to make the Global Information Grid interoperable. The program managers’ mind-set is to focus on making their individual systems interoperable. Their pitfall is that they are wed to a program or a contractor in a manner that convinces them that compliance with standards will limit capability. They also may be using an outmoded acquisition mindset more typical of conventional hardware platforms such as ships, tanks and aircraft.

In effect, their whole mind-set is reversed. The key to avoiding this trap—and the potential action by the secretary of defense—lies in standards. People tend to think of standards as limitations. Instead, we need to view standards as enablers.

Consider automobiles, for example. The types of cars and trucks that use our roadways vary considerably. However, they all must meet standards that establish minimum and maximum limits in size and performance. These established standards applied to them enable all vehicles to use our roads safely and effectively.

In this manner, these standards are enablers. They allow the trucking industry to prosper and private transportation to flourish. We must look at standards in the military information technology arena in the same manner. Established standards serve the greater good, and all participants benefit.

Standards are invaluable especially in the military arena. The rapidly shifting tides of battle provide little time for C4I experimentation. Commanders and their warfighters must have the confidence that their attempts to adapt to a changing situation will not be stymied by interoperability conflicts.

And, personnel who operate with in a well-established set of standards need not worry that their spontaneity in combat will clash with the efforts of other friendly forces. In this manner, warfighters in the dynamic infosphere can operate secure in the confidence that their efforts will be force multipliers rather than reducers.

It is time for our C4I users and managers to wake up and smell the coffee. If the people who actually manage a military information technology program see standards as enablers instead of limiters, then we will be off to the races.