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Kosovo Maps the Future of Information Technologies

December 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

New capabilities emerge with advanced networking, while shortcomings become more apparent and critical.

The military information revolution came of age during the Kosovo operation as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pushed the edge of the technology envelope. Commanders and warfighters found new capabilities that allowed them to take full advantage of precision-guided munitions, flexible surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and real-time situational awareness that reached across the full spectrum of participants.

Where the Gulf War demonstrated the effectiveness of advanced communications and electronics technologies, the Kosovo operation laid the groundwork for their course to the future. Robot aircraft prowled the skies over target areas, transmitting real-time targeting and damage assessment imagery to headquarters. The dream of virtual mission planning and assessment became a reality for nearly a thousand daily flights. And, networked information systems proved their worth as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member nations exercised their consultative role throughout the operation.

The introduction of these new capabilities, however, also shed light on shortcomings that threaten to hamstring their effectiveness in future operations. The absence of secure voice interoperability proved awkward and, in some cases, led to security breaches during air operations. Many allied nations found that their different levels of electronics sophistication precluded seamless interoperability in joint operations. Not surprisingly, the greater success of information systems led to increased demand, placing severe stress on bandwidth availability that actually limited the deployment of some of the alliance’s most useful assets.

As ground forces now seek to restore order to Kosovo in the aftermath of the conflict, NATO’s mission as a security alliance is coming into clearer focus along with its key enabler, information systems. The newly gleaned advantages of these advanced communications and electronics technologies will be the catalysts that change the way NATO proceeds in future regional security crises.

The Kosovo operation achieved its primary objective of forcing Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic to allow an international peacekeeping force into Kosovo to protect ethnic Albanians from persecution. However, even while alliance losses were minimal, the operation was not cut and dried. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, USA, supreme allied commander, Europe, explains that operational planning had to take into account a number of different scenarios and possible outcomes.

“We had no assurance as to the degree of resistance that would be provided by the adversary,” he relates. “In fact, it was a pretty determined resistance. [Milosevic] wasn’t going to surrender and give in to a pinprick attack, so the attack had to be robust.” No one could predict how far, and how robust, the attack would need to be to generate the desired political response, the general allows.

Key to mission success was the alliance’s communications backbone. In a SIGNAL interview, Gen. Clark relates that the Kosovo operation clearly demonstrated the importance of information systems to NATO’s mission. “This operation relied on the most extensive network and the most robust use of digitized data in history,” he says. Alliance leaders learned a vital lesson from the Gulf War on the need for “the most robust possible communications backbone in the theater.”

Achieving this went beyond bringing military assets to the table, however. NATO forces used a combination of military and commercial systems and services to establish the backbone. Forces were transmitting multiple channels of full-motion video simultaneously to a wide array of users from Washington, D.C., to Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This permitted videoconferencing at multiple echelons around the clock. Other essential elements such as target information and mission planning flowed over the backbone.

“We did place a great deal of reliance on the commercial communications architecture,” the general allows, citing the importance of long-haul satellite systems. NATO employed some terrestrial-based communications assets such as mobile telephones, which he describes as a tremendous asset in quickly entering and coordinating operations in many operational areas. These technologies were useful throughout the operation, he notes.

The general also lauds the “tremendous ingenuity and technical competence” of the signalers in all of the services. He describes the assembled communications architecture as “more imaginative, innovative and effective,” than anything he has seen to date, noting that it provided seamless and virtually invisible support at his command level.

This communications architecture allowed NATO headquarters to command and control a diverse, complicated operation in multiple theaters simultaneously. In addition to the varied forces in or near the Kosovo combat, the architecture included 30,000 troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as support personnel scattered over vast distances. With almost 1,000 aircraft operating in theater, the command and control architecture stretched from Skopje in Macedonia and Tirana in Albania back to the United States.

In the Kosovo operation, the information environment was characterized by multiple imagery, the general notes. This imagery, however, “eats up” megabits of information with each use. Often, it must be routed simultaneously to several headquarters for study and review.

Gen. Clark describes the establishment of this virtual operations and planning system as “the essential step forward” that was achieved in the Kosovo operation. Geographically remote headquarters were networked in real time or near real time to provide access to vast video libraries. This capability in turn facilitated the operational control of forces in the rapidly changing environment.

“Anytime you are trying to operate a high-precision campaign, you must have robust information to plan effectively, control strikes and perform the types of assessments that let you go back in where necessary,” Gen. Clark states.

These capabilities came with a price, however. Foremost among any battlefield information system wish list is bandwidth, and the Kosovo operation was no exception. Increased information traffic, especially in imagery, boosted bandwidth demands to the breaking point. Many new capabilities proved so useful that they actually had to be reined in because their bandwidth requirements overtaxed systems.

Gen. Clark allows that the command could have flown as many as 20 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) simultaneously if it had the bandwidth necessary for relaying their real-time, full-motion video to the appropriate users. Instead, only about four UAVs could be flown to full usefulness at a given time. Even if the full-motion video could have been transmitted from 20 UAVs, another issue would have been how the video would be distributed, to whom and how it would be used.

The military always will be requiring increased bandwidth, he predicts. This is a feature of modern systems, and demand will always push supply. The general notes that “remarkable advances” were made in the distribution of target imagery and of strike information and requirements.

“There were significant issues in terms of distributing information laterally at lower echelons, in terms of military systems interfacing with commercial systems, in terms of theater entry access from various peacetime locations, and in terms of overall capacity and potential requirements,” Gen. Clark relates.

Future operations may create far more demanding information environments than Kosovo, the commander warns. The Kosovo conflict largely focused on air operations. A fully digitized battlefield will network ground forces extensively, and their interaction with air elements will add another full dimension to the demands placed on information systems. Gen. Clark suggests that actual requirements for bandwidth in this kind of scenario could be enormous.

Not all allied systems in the Kosovo conflict were electronically compatible, and this led to some interoperability problems, especially for exchanging information on secure channels. Gen. Clark also notes differences in system capabilities such as beyond visual range identification friend or foe, the ability to receive digitized data, and secure voice coordination. All of these issues “were worked successfully,” he adds.

“Insofar as some air systems were not able to work in a secure voice mode, then certain operational security was compromised,” the general acknowledges. “We attempted to address it the way that aviators and military people always have—through the use of code words and very brief transmissions. But, we also know that there were ears able to monitor, and in some cases interpret, what was said in the clear,” he relates.

Operational interoperability was enabled by considerable hours of joint training among pilots from various NATO nations, which in turn was complemented by familiarity with established NATO air doctrine. The effectiveness of this training illustrates the need to increase interoperability training, the general suggests.

Interoperability drawbacks did not force any significant operational changes. “We could combine French, German, Dutch, American, British and many other aircrews and still be effective, day and night,” he relates. “We operated in a way that maximized interoperability.”

The next key step for future operations is to ensure that all forces have effective secure voice communications. Gen. Clark states that this includes the ability to secure command and control networks from aircrews and basic maneuver units up through the chain of command. “The ability to communicate in secure voice is absolutely essential to command and control,” he emphasizes.

The alliance also needs improved planning systems, Gen. Clark maintains. These would provide the capability to format complex information distribution problems and distribute the results rapidly. He cites air-tasking-order planning systems, where changes already are underway, and improved information distribution for air defense and airspace management as examples. When ground forces are brought fully into the information loop, they will add many requirements such as improved position location reporting and logistics management. Ultimately, the fundamental prerequisite for these systems becomes greater bandwidth and access to it, he states.

“Command, control, communications, computers and intelligence are the backbone of the alliance, and they have to be the first elements of interoperability,” Gen. Clark warrants. In the same vein, these capabilities must be among the first aspects of full integration for new members.

According to the general, the most important new information technology application in the Kosovo operation was the joint broadcast system. It provided broadband data distribution on multiple channels to support real-time targeting decision making. This was especially useful with UAV operations, he offers.

Even with limited flights, UAVs provided crucial new capabilities. The Kosovo conflict was the first operation where U.S. forces were able to perform real-time targeting using UAVs, Gen. Clark states. He relates that their real-time battlefield information included identification friend or foe, target detection and identification, collateral damage assessment and battle damage assessment during bombardment.

Another important information application was the use of virtual targeting and battle damage assessment networks. Until Kosovo, the use of these networks in battle was largely theory originating from the Gulf War. These virtual operational centers provided the capacity to multiply manpower contribution by many times to strengthen around-the-clock performance. In turn, this permitted adding a variety of skills and insights into what otherwise might have been “a closed shop,” the general offers. The result of this technology application was an improvement in the human factor, which resulted in a more responsive, dynamic organization that can change more rapidly, deal with a greater set of requirements more efficiently, and strengthen around-the-clock effectiveness.

The full use of videoconferencing also proved to be a key information application. The need for high-level discourse among NATO members is reflected in the alliance’s definition of C3: consultation, command and control. This decision-making mode was put to the test in Kosovo, where the command was in constant contact with member nation officials throughout the operation. “The most important lesson is that NATO worked,” the commander declares. “It worked because of 50 years of shared experience, common understanding and collective resolve to work together.”

Rather than a hindrance, this multinational construct was an asset, the general states. “The full participation of NATO was an absolute precondition for success,” he allows. “It was NATO, collectively, that demonstrated its resolve and was so effective in forcing Serb compliance to its conditions. This resolve was maintained by a process of thorough and detailed consultation, exchange of information, exchange of viewpoints, and resolving differences between allies that occurred at many levels simultaneously—from heads of state all the way down to air commanders in the combined air operations center. It was an essential part of what NATO is,” he concludes.

This cooperation extended beyond air operations and NATO members. Many Partnership for Peace (PfP) nations, as well as countries from outside of Europe and North America such as the United Arab Emirates, are now on the ground in Kosovo assisting in postcombat activities. Many of these non-NATO members are still providing useful assistance, the general declares.

During the air campaign, some PfP nations permitted NATO to use their terrain and airspace while denying other countries the same access for activities that might have hindered NATO’s operations. Gen. Clark relates that Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were key forward operating locations for NATO forces. “These governments took a tremendous risk, and we owe them a real debt of gratitude because their continued support and stability were essential in prosecuting the air campaign and in current operations,” he declares.

The broad range of operational areas, along with the number of countries that provided vital on-site support, hints of likely trends in alliance security. Future forces must have an expeditionary mindset, organization and capabilities, the general declares. These forces must be able to go to the fight, and increasingly, they will need to be prepared to fight on arrival in theater. A premium will be placed on deployment assets, which points the way toward lightening forces and their gear. New technologies must pave the way for the development of capable hardware that is better suited to mobile operations.

Among the European members of NATO, Gen. Clark sees a growing sense of pride and determination to shoulder more of the load in any future contingency that may arise. He notes that, before the Kosovo military operation began, European nations fielded a French-led extraction force that was in place in Kosovo. Prior to that, the United Kingdom led the deployment of the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps in that region.

The commander states that the alliance must be commended for having set and achieved its political objectives with an economical use of force. Nonetheless, negatives did occur despite the successful outcome. “There will always be regrets … that the ethnic cleansing started at all,” he says. “Certainly, none of us felt good about the unfortunate civilian casualties among the Kosovar Albanians in particular, who were caught in circumstances beyond their control during the operation.

“Given the circumstances and the planning and forces that were available, I think NATO made the correct decisions at every turn,” he concludes.