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Challenges Loom for Network-Centric Warfare

November 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A report to Congress champions advantages and outlines hurdles remaining to be overcome.

Several key impediments must be conquered if network-centric warfare is to achieve its potential for revolutionizing military operations. Long-standing concerns such as interoperability and cultural resistance are joined by issues of understanding human behavior and research and development investment. These elements threaten to slow or even derail efforts to incorporate the full advantages of network-centric warfare into U.S. forces by 2025.

To overcome these hurdles, the U.S. Defense Department must begin by establishing measurable goals as part of a full implementation plan. Battlespace platforms, weapons and sensors would be designed network-ready. The Defense Department would establish a high-level office to oversee the military’s transformation into a network-centric force. And, the department would encourage innovation to deliberately shake the foundations of conventional thought and practice.

These are the core points outlined in a report to Congress on network-centric warfare by the Defense Department. The report declares that “compelling evidence supports the theory of network-centric warfare.” It continues that warfighters employing its concepts “can dramatically increase survivability, lethality, speed, timeliness and responsiveness.” The report also notes that significant progress has been made in achieving its goals, but “far more must be done to transform today’s platform-centric force into a network-centric one.”

Transforming the military into a fully network-centric force is a monumental task that will span at least a quarter of a century, the report maintains. Many of its methods of operation have yet to be conceived. It will employ technologies yet to be invented and will increase warfighting capabilities by orders of magnitude.

“The question is no longer if network-centric warfare makes sense, but how best to achieve it,” the report declares.

Achieving it will require meeting a number of conditions: An infostructure must exist that is robustly networked to support information sharing and collaboration; a way of analyzing and assessing network-centric capabilities is essential; an appropriate technology base is needed along with an improved understanding of related issues; and its climate must foster disruptive innovation.

The issue of disruptive innovation strikes at the heart of impediments to achieving transformation goals. The report cites the need to differentiate between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. Sustaining innovation improves the performance of existing products or services along lines that have been historically valued, and these types of innovations tend to come easily. Disruptive innovations bring value propositions that are very different from those conventionally available, and implementing them requires leadership and commitment. However, the success of an organization in sustaining innovation creates impediments to disruptive innovation.

The report continues that the Defense Department is “second to none” at sustaining innovation. In fact, disruptive innovations pose challenges for commercial and military organizations. Over the long term, however, products from disruptive innovations cost less and perform better, and they are where “the real payoff of network-centric warfare can be found,” the report allows.

A number of conditions contribute to “the lack of adventure” displayed in developing network-centric concepts and applications. These include a dearth of existing interoperability to serve as an example; slow progress toward a necessary infostructure; outdated acquisition processes and practices that cannot keep up with technology advances; failure to understand the basics of experimentation, including design, conduct, and collection and analysis of results; and a process that does not adequately support the co-evolution of mission capability packages.

Organizational drawbacks include a lack of organizational focal points in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the services, agencies and the joint community for promoting the attainment of network-centric warfare capabilities. Disconnects exist between the requirements and experimental processes and between experimental and acquisition processes. And, there is no strategic plan expressed in terms of network-centric hypotheses.

To remedy these and other shortcomings, the report calls for an OSD-level Office of Transformation to develop and implement a transformation of Defense Department business practices. This, in turn, would facilitate a network-centric transformation of the department.

The department also needs to set a specific date for achieving a network-centric capability. The report cites considerable disparities in progress among various organizations as well as a lack of progress on truly joint network-centric concepts of organization. Without a general guiding vision, each organization is developing its own priorities and sense of urgency. Consequently, the force will take a long time to achieve a mature network-centric capability. By setting a mission-specific completion date both for the infostructure and for various network-centric capabilities, the Defense Department can establish interim milestones by backtracking from this completion date.

Both network-centric warfare and network-centric operations should be the cornerstone of the department’s strategic force transformation plan. The report notes that the success of both concepts does not depend on a particular geopolitical future or set of scenarios.

“Network-centric warfare is no less than the embodiment of Defense Department transformation,” the report continues. “It will increase warfighting capabilities more than all the advances that have been made in the history of warfare to date.”

Compelling evidence supports the theory of network-centric warfare, the report notes. This includes joint and service experiments and exercises that have amassed data supporting network-centric warfare hypotheses. Evidence shows that networking sensors can increase the quality of available information; shared information improves situational awareness; forces are able to respond more quickly; actions can be synchronized both by more dynamic planning and execution and by self-synchronization; and forces can achieve higher levels of lethality and survivability with less risk and fewer resources. “Applications of network-centric warfare theory to date have barely scratched the surface of what is possible,” the report declares.

Several defense technology objectives already are addressing key network-centric warfare focus areas. The report divides them into six categories: seamless, robust connectivity and interoperability; information assurance; operationally responsive and reliable network resources and services; information integration, presentation and decision support; information management and distribution; and distributed collaborative support.

Five specific elements are cited to support seamless, robust connectivity and interoperability. Digital warfighting communications exploits emerging commercial devices and technologies. Antenna technologies aim at affordable antennas and signal distribution technology. Smart networked radio efforts will provide modular technology building blocks for next-generation tactical radios. Mobile network management focuses on advanced networking protocols that enable dynamic re-addressing and network management for commercial networking technologies. And, the Link 16 advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD) provides interoperability between Link 16 and joint variable message format networks.

Information assurance is divided into four elements. The Ultralog effort aims to develop technology enabling massive-scale distributed agent systems that support logistics and operate over the unclassified Internet. The information dominance (command and control protect) advanced technology demonstration (ATD) is geared toward security for the U.S. Army’s tactical Internet and first digitized division and beyond. The automated intrusion detection environment ACTD aims to develop a cyberradar to detect coordinated attacks on the military infostructure and provide automated reporting through to the Global Network Operations Security Center (GNOSC). And, the active network intrusion defense ACTD is working to provide a cyberwarfare information assurance capability that reduces response times and damage propagation.

Operationally responsive and reliable network resources and services constitute the third category, which comprises three elements. Software for autonomous systems work seeks to take advantage of processor advances to provide control systems for free-ranging autonomous systems. Adaptive/reactive architectures for mission agility would implement embedded computing systems to support reactive multimission, multisensor and in-flight retargetable missions. Active templates would provide prioritized information that updates in real time and triggers an automatic computer analysis of the effect of changes.

The fourth category, information integration, presentation and decision support involves five elements. Simulation interconnection efforts focus on connecting joint and component simulations for operations, training, acquisition and analysis. Information presentation and interaction activities aim to develop automated organization and management tools for global analysis, foreign language translation, and stereoscopic three-dimensional viewing in battlefield and situational awareness. Future command post technologies will provide a commander with an adaptive, dynamically configurable information-visualization environment. The commander in chief (CINC) 21 program is developing technical capabilities in visualization, work flow, information and knowledge management and collaboration. And, the adaptive battlespace awareness ACTD is developing technologies for decision-centric displays for time-critical targeting and search and rescue missions.

Information management and distribution entails three elements. The agent-based systems for warfighter support effort is developing agent-based computing technology, including autonomously operating software systems performing distributed computing with multiple sources for Web-enabled military command, control and intelligence systems. The joint global infosphere for network-centric warfare aims for an interoperable information space on the Global Information Grid to serve a variety of vital roles at all echelons. Information fusion efforts are developing tools and an architecture to fuse multiple intelligence sources.

The sixth category is distributed collaborative support, and it encompasses four elements. Forecasting, planning and resource allocation efforts will develop technologies to dynamically synchronize force operations and provide a proactive planning process in the midst of combat situations. The theater precision strike operations ACTD will enable the ground component commander to forecast, plan and execute deep operations and counterfires with an integrated joint and coalition force. The network-centric collaborative targeting ACTD is developing collaborative operational concepts and processing techniques to enable existing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems to increase the speed and accuracy of their targeting. And, the coalition theater logistics ACTD aims to fuse the gamut of logistics and transportation information for coalition-based rapid crisis response.