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The Dawning of a New AFCEA Age

January 2004
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

Since 1946, AFCEA has prided itself on the role it plays in being a conduit between government and industry. Our association has served to help move the finest technology offered by the Free World into the hands of its warfighters. This has been accomplished because of the ethical environment that AFCEA creates to allow frank “roll-up-the-sleeves” dialogue. This environment enables government to be exposed to the great advances that information technology (IT) is making in the commercial sector. I am convinced that AFCEA has played a key role in making the use of COTS, or commercial off-the-shelf, equipment an accepted practice for government IT professionals.

AFCEA will continue to put the lion’s share of its efforts into being a bridge between government and industry, but a new role beckons for our international association. It is time for AFCEA to take the lessons it has learned bringing industry and government together and apply them to aiding future coalition forces’ command and control (C2). It will do so by helping allied governments recognize and solve the interoperability problem.

If AFCEA can put as much time and effort into interoperability as it did into the COTS concept, then it will be able to solve one of the major issues that confront those who are fighting terrorists across the globe.

Taking up this challenge does not mean that AFCEA will abandon its traditional role. Our association will continue to facilitate open dialogue between government and industry. Now, in addition, AFCEA aims to be the conduit for interoperability across the Atlantic and the Pacific. The goal is to help government and industry find ways to develop the interoperability tools required for future coalition operations.

The need for this new mission for AFCEA came into clear focus on my latest trip to Europe. The U.S. briefers at AFCEA events in Europe identified a common operational picture and coalition C2 as pluses of operation Iraqi Freedom. On the other hand, our European coalition counterparts are less ready to place interoperability in the victory column.

High on their wish list is a technology that will allow them to enter the secret Internet protocol router network, or SIPRNET, freely. SIPRNET has become a primary C2 tool for U.S. forces. For coalition allies to be equal partners in combat, the United States must find a way to provide them with full access to this vital network. Both policy and technology issues loom as obstacles to achieving this goal, but they can be overcome.

For a road map to solving the cultural problems, just look at the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years. Two decades ago, placing commercial technology in the hands of the military would have been considered heresy. Even the ballpoint pens were built according to government specifications. Now, the military is rife with commercial technologies down to the telephones—and the pens. The culture changed over those 20 years to where COTS technology is not merely accepted, but embraced. We need a cultural change similar to the one that allowed us to move from military-specification to COTS hardware—only this change must move us from nation-state-only to coalition information- and C2-interoperable systems.

A related area where the United States should look for improvement is the automation of stamping NOFORN on information that is relevant to the coalition battlefield. A Secret message sent to a designated recipient is stamped NOFORN automatically when it is relayed to someone else. This occurs because the message originates from a classified source. In fact, the only element in the message that is important is its information. Remove the source from the message, if that is what it will take to open up vital information to coalition partners.

In a more specific example, another challenge is to find a way to provide coalition-available electro-optical products, whether from space or aircraft. The United States must determine how to quickly disseminate electro-optic intelligence to coalition warfighters.

This is especially important for that most vital of network-centric capabilities—situational awareness. For example, one of the most useful technologies incorporated in the Iraq War was Blue Force Tracking. A subsidiary element of a larger system, this technology won friends fast with its ability to provide a common operational picture to ground forces. Future systems in the network-centric battlespace will employ various types of imagery to provide a common operational picture. Yet, that vital information will not serve its purpose if it cannot be supplied to—and fed by—coalition partners. Unless cultural and technological impediments can be overcome, we will not be able to capitalize on the various strengths that a coalition force brings to the fight.

Whatever our foreign policy disagreements, the NATO nations and their Free World friends and allies are united in their determination—and their absolute need—to win the war on terrorism. We must defeat terrorism now. Today, the lack of interoperability is an unnecessary liability. Let’s turn interoperability into a strength. As AFCEANs, let us take on the role of the facilitators for international interoperability. Our association can achieve a great deal in helping Free World nations improve the process of achieving interoperability. It is time to rise to the challenge for the future.