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NMCI—No One Asked Me, But …

December 2002
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps are in the midst of one of the greatest sea changes in history as they transform from platform-centric into a network-centric fighting force. Several steps will enable this long-term change, beginning with IT-21 and leading to FORCEnet. Right now, the step that is in the spotlight is the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet, or NMCI. It is one of the largest information technology contracts ever let by the government and, as with all major programs, NMCI is generating new challenges as its reach expands throughout the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to the established hierarchy of the two services. I’m speaking of both technology and culture. Some Sailors and Marines are taking issue with the changes that NMCI is bringing to their information technology architectures as well as to their ways of doing business. Instead of highlighting challenges for NMCI, however, these complaints actually illustrate why NMCI is so effective—and so vital—for the future of the Navy and the Marine Corps.

It is my observation that the majority of complaints about NMCI are based on individuals’ concerns about losing applications with which they have become comfortable in their own organizations. Thousands of individually tailored networks that have been established over the years have put us in a comfort zone. This comfort zone worked well for the immediate users of each individual network, but it handicapped the Navy and Marine Corps in making progress toward a true network-centric community.

This observation does not come out of the blue. I have met with many people involved in the NMCI program. They include uniformed personnel from young petty officers to seasoned flag officers, as well as industry officials from the winning contractor to nonparticipating observers. Their diverse views offer a clearer perspective of the effect that NMCI has on the Navy and the Marine Corps right now—and that it will have in the future.

For years, the Department of the Navy made investments to establish various networks and databases to meet specific pressing needs. Many of these investments entailed evolving technologies and were visionary at the time they were made. Having these individual systems in place tailored to users’ needs accelerated the implementation of information technology and the development of network-centric warfare concepts. Now, however, these diverse networks and databases are an impediment to truly effective servicewide networking.

It is not an issue of sacrificing comfort for commonality. Just think for a moment about a philosophy that allows every information technology operator to have a system that suits his or her needs perfectly. The result would be hundreds of thousands of different stovepipes, each perfectly tailored to the individual—and only the individual. The service as a whole, however, would suffer immensely.

It is not unusual for experienced information technology operators to resist major changes. I remember very well when Adm. Archie Clemins first forced IT-21 on the Navy at sea. I was one of his commanders at the 3rd Fleet. I knew IT-21 was the right thing, but its implementation was painful. Events have shown that IT-21’s implementation was well worth the effort. Its “cure” had a significant positive impact on our ships. Today, our ability to fight and operate exists because we made a commitment to get out of the comfort zone and into the new world brought by IT-21.

Interestingly, many of the concerns about IT-21 emerged when we were working with it conceptually at the senior officer level. Yet, when junior officers and enlisted personnel began hands-on activities, IT-21 began to hum. The missing ingredient was to get our younger Sailors involved earlier in the program.

Individuals may mourn the loss of their comfort zones, but NMCI will make the Navy/Marine Corps team more effective than would maintaining today’s individual networks and databases. I believe the NMCI experience will be similar to the one we had with IT-21—a hard pill to swallow, but a cure that ultimately will improve our situation.

In fact, if you look at the overall concept of FORCEnet as the follow-on to IT-21 and NMCI, we will have the total picture that will make the network-centric force a reality. It represents a natural progression—IT-21 at sea, NMCI for the shore establishment and FORCEnet tying the entire picture together. There will be a few bumps along the road; we will get over them, and we will be very pleased with the results.

If there is any caution to be offered for NMCI and FORCEnet, it is, Don’t shortchange the training dollars. A lesson to be learned with all of our acquisition systems is to give our young Sailors and Marines the tools and the training, and they will make us all look like heroes.

Any change brings uncertainty and a small amount of angst. Yet, over the long term, most changes provide many more advantages than liabilities. NMCI was a good idea when it was formulated, and it is a good idea today. It is a major step toward transforming the way we will administer, operate and fight in the future. NMCI is not just change. NMCI is improvement.