Look Outside the Wire for Information Sharing

January 2010
By Linton Wells II

Effective coalition operations in Afghanistan may depend on unclassified data access.

Improving the way we share unclassified information is essential to the success of the president’s strategy for Afghanistan. The reason is straightforward: The United States and its coalition partners must engage effectively with the populations they are trying to influence to achieve the social, political and economic goals for which their military forces have been committed. In Afghanistan, these populations include governments at various levels, security forces, businesses and the Afghan people. Unclassified information is the path to most of these audiences. It also is a key channel for them to help us understand their needs and the knowledge they have.

This is not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Complex civil-military operations around the world will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Scenarios range from stability operations, to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR), to defense support of civil authorities within the United States, to building the capacity of partner nations.

In these contexts, unclassified situational awareness and the communications networks to share it are not merely technical adjuncts to population-centric strategies or to delivering major HA/DR supplies such as food, shelter, water and security. They are critical enablers.

This requires that U.S. and coalition partners reach beyond the boundaries of joint military forces and work effectively “outside the wire.” This need not be a one-way street. If trust is established and social networks built, then civil-military mission participants—such as other U.S. government agencies, host country nationals, international organizations, non-governmental and private volunteer organizations (NGOs/PVOs), local governments, indigenous security services, and others—can make exceptionally valuable contributions to achieving mutual objectives, both through the work they can do and the knowledge they can bring.

Policy and doctrine within the Department of Defense (DOD) increasingly support such information exchanges, but a serious flaw in the past has been that such high-level pronouncements often have not been translated into effective field operating procedures. For example, during recovery efforts after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, significant amounts of unclassified information were flown ashore from the USS Abraham Lincoln only to be left undistributed when liaison personnel on the beach felt they had no authority to pass them on to the NGOs or PVOs who were supporting the relief operations. Similar incidents have been reported in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two areas where effective tactics, techniques and procedures to implement unclassified information sharing policy could yield quick wins are bandwidth sharing and data sharing.

In April 2009, the assistant secretary of defense (networks and information integration)/DOD chief information officer issued a Defense Department Instruction to promote bandwidth sharing (DODI 8220.02) in complex operations. Among other things, it states: … information-sharing activities that facilitate coordination and cooperation between DOD and non-DOD partners will be established to enable common understanding of the stabilization and reconstruction, disaster relief, and humanitarian and civic assistance environment; and to support an integrated whole-of-government response capability.”

This instruction represents a significant advance in Defense Department information-sharing policy, yet it is relatively unknown among operators. DODI 8220.02 should be incorporated widely into training and practice.

For data sharing, Todd Huffman, who has extensive PVO experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has outlined three principles. Huffman, from the Bio-design Institute at Arizona State University, says the first principle is to create immediate value for anyone contributing data. When users contribute data, they should get an immediate return on that investment.

The second is to make contributor data available with improvements. Any data that goes in should be available to download back out again. Furthermore, data should come back better than when entered.

The third principle is to share derivative works back with the data-sharing community. Users who create derivative works from shared data should be urged to contribute their products back to the group.

These simple principles often are not followed. Too often data contributions—especially to government and corporations—are not returned or reciprocated, which has caused wariness in the private sector and the NGO/PVO communities. On the other hand, remarkable successes have been achieved in eastern Afghanistan by cultivating positive feedback loops with the data-sharing communities. One example can be found in Expanded Access to Information in Nangarhar Province (http://star-tides.net/node/380).

Responsible unclassified information sharing offers huge benefits in virtually all operations in which we’re likely to be involved. There always will be security concerns—often legitimate—but the benefits of a responsible sharing environment need to be weighted heavily against visceral inclinations to protect. The underlying point remains that the United States and its partners cannot achieve their social, political and economic goals without effective ways to engage outside the wire.

Linton Wells II is the transformation chair and a distinguished research professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Defense Department or of SIGNAL Magazine.

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