Command's Information Dominance Center Fuels Comprehensive Operations

April 2010
By Col. George Franz, USA; Lt. Col. David Pendall, USA; and Lt. Col. Jeffery Steffen, USA, SIGNAL Magazine


Capt. Oliver Loritz, GE A (l), a regional analyst; Maj. Andrew Carbonaro, ITAR (2nd from l), governance analyst; Ric Diaz (2nd from r), an analyst for Pakistan issues with the U.S. Defense Department; and Maj. Justine Krumm, USA, Information Dominance Center (IDC) production chief, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), collaborate on a project. The IDC harnesses civil and military expertise and serves as a multinational information center.

New way to share information aims at streamlining processes and improving collaboration efforts.

The International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan, is implementing an information-sharing architecture that will create and enable a comprehensive common operating picture, derived from multiple systems, networks and classifications. It is designed to be the most decisive information and knowledge management effort ever executed within Afghanistan. This level of battlespace management and synchronization never has been attempted on this scale within NATO or the coalition force. The integrative effort could have significant effects on current and future civil-military operations across the Afghan theater.

Understanding the complex operational environment in Afghanistan means seeing the local conditions and activities and how they impact the populace. Before the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and nonmilitary partners can work together to gain the support of the Afghan people, they must understand how their efforts are viewed and what can turn the citizens away from supporting the government. This means understanding not only the nature of security threats posed by insurgents and terrorists and the like, but also the aspects of governance and development that have the greatest impact on the population’s daily lives. U.S. and coalition forces need to adjust what they report and how that information is reported, but more importantly, they must change the organizational process used to turn data into the knowledge shared with all organizations—military, industry and government. Efforts in Afghanistan are supported by an international team, and the data sources, analytical approaches and knowledge management paradigms should reflect that same international diversity.

The ISAF Joint Command (IJC) is reorganizing its staff and its approach to meet the commander’s critical information requirements (CCIR) by creating an inclusive information center to assemble, analyze and disseminate operational information in a timely, accurate and comprehensive way. The IJC’s Information Dominance Center (IDC) was organized specifically to address the information challenge faced by all partners in the Afghanistan effort. The IDC represents a new approach for synthesizing data so that decision makers at all echelons understand the complex informational environment with a common view.

For the majority of the organizations operating in Afghanistan, the problem is not a shortage of data. This is particularly true after eight years of operations and interaction with military units, local and national leaders, regional and global media, fact-finding teams, government and nongovernment survey organizations, and other groups. The issue is both data overload and the glare of ambiguous, contradictory, inconsistent, latent and incomplete reporting that cause U.S. and coalition forces to divert their attention away from the underlying dynamics and relationships of the key organizations, individuals and actions that really matter in the Afghan operating environment.

Afghanistan is a nation of more than 25 million, with more than 20 ethnic groups, hundreds of tribes and the presence of foreign support on both sides of the political endeavor. The overall complexity surpasses any other conflict area in the world. Given the requirement to act in an environment that is by definition unpredictable and unforgiving, decisions must be made in the face of contradictory, inconsistent, incomplete and perishable information. Truth changes—and the lens used to view the landscape matters. Within this unstable information “ecosystem,” the commander asks open-ended questions as part of a sustained inquiry and requires his organization to be capable of producing detailed, nuanced and comprehensive explanations and predictive assessments.

Expecting to gather all data, information and knowledge across all functional, technical and geographic areas in Afghanistan is unrealistic. A hierarchy must be in place in place to facilitate common understanding of the complex informational ecosystem. These information requirements must be more than just questions—they must be the right questions that drive effective population-based counterinsurgency operations.

Doctrinally, the CCIR prioritizes collection, analysis and dissemination. Unfortunately, there has been no deliberate or effective mechanism or process to identify, share, analyze and disseminate the crucial, population-centric information within the current bounds of the CCIR. As an initial step, the IJC has expanded the definition of critical information. The Host Nation Information Requirements (HNIR) are a dedicated set of the CCIR for the IJC and its subordinate units. They report on the critical factors affecting the people in Afghanistan and expand the scope of the CCIR.

All the elements and actions required to transform facts and isolated bits of information into action require both technology and human intellectual capital. Linear processes are formed from data, information, knowledge and understanding leading to action; feedback loops and collaborative partnerships that pool and share resources, especially expertise, extend well beyond the capacity and purview of the individual sections. Synthesis requires cross-functional teams of experts—senior leaders maintaining constant contact with the environment that affects the analytic organization—and integration of the strengths of diversity within the team.

Information must extend beyond organizational boundaries, and the organizational structure must adapt to reflect the diversity, depth and sensitivity of the information available in order to provide an effective understanding of the operational environment to all partners. Extending broader access to diverse databases is crucial in order to prevent myopic views of the environment, develop a thorough understanding and create comprehensive assessments.

Inherent to the communication architecture of the IDC is the ability to push classified information to the lowest level possible while ingesting from multiple unclassified data sources. Contributing to the collaborative effort also is a critical component of the IDC’s architecture. Populating classified and, more importantly, unclassified databases and portals will enable significantly greater collaboration through interaction with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and government and nongovernment organizations that lack access to the classified mission systems.

The IJC leverages three tools to enable a common understanding. First, Web portals will ensure the greatest availability of finished products to all partners. The IJC’s Microsoft SharePoint portal on the Afghan Mission Network, which was integrated with NATO’s Document Handling System and the NATO Intelligence Toolbox, enables the storage, retrieval and dissemination of finished products representing the synthesis and analysis of all partners. For deliberate collaboration and information sharing with partners that only have access to unclassified networks, the IJC leverages two Internet sites with complementary structures and customers: the Civil-Military Overview and the Ronna-Afghan Web portal. The IJC continues coordinating with partner organizations in Afghanistan to ensure that appropriate content is shared among these sites, the Afghan Mission Network and other networks.

The second tool is an Afghanistan-focused wiki-like information repository. This so-called “Afghan wiki” provides an information-sharing environment for data, information and assessments that generally are stable in the mid- to long-term periods. This resource will be replicated onto other networks, including the unclassified network on the Ronna-Afghan Web portal. Sharing information with all partners is critical to synchronize planning and operations in this environment.

The third tool is a database that enables cross-staff, cross-function and cross-partner structured data sharing. In late 2009, members of ISAF’s intelligence community fielded the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE), which has continued to be adapted to satisfy multiple operational requirements. The companion to CIDNE on the unclassified network allows structured data to transfer between nearly all classified networks within the constraints of security policies. The unclassified version will be available through the Ronna-Afghan Web portal as the site matures through early 2010.

The IDC leverages these tools to facilitate collaboration across ISAF headquarters, all echelons of command, and government and nongovernment partners. Combined with a means to populate an unclassified portal with associated wiki pages and other collaborative Web sites, these tools will ensure the greatest dissemination of relevant, accurate and timely information that remains current from regular updates provided by individuals and organizations with access to the most complete data.

Previous efforts to process and distribute data and information across the ISAF, Afghan and nonmilitary team have proved to be insufficient. Now, internal reorganization has increased the rigor, depth and breadth of information processing and analysis for all consumers teaming in this international effort.  No single staff element monopolizes the functional, technical and professional expertise required to synthesize the diversity of information into a relevant product for decision-making processes.

In a counter-insurgency environment, the HNIR represent the most important aspects of that environment that must be integrated and understood to ensure cohesion of effort throughout the complex combination of actors in Afghanistan. IDC experts assembled from across the staff, including both civilian and military, NATO and Afghan, have the functional expertise to provide complementary views of the environment and the ability to ensure broad dissemination of relevant assessments.

The IDC also serves another key function—that of widening the aperture for data and information input, analysis and dissemination. The effect is that all of the IJC’s partners will increase the “surface contacts” at the local level throughout the country. The IJC’s reporting process supports cross-functional processing of information and ensures the data validation, further refining analytic insights across the functional or technical fields. Ultimately, the key to enabling the leaders at the local level in Afghanistan’s districts and provinces is to accurately represent their information requirements as conduct-partnered operations within local communities. These operations include personnel from ISAF and the Afghan army and police forces collaborating together.

The IDC’s knowledge management processes are key to all partners having a common understanding. Creating a data repository and a reference library that supports analysis will provide the IJC commander and staff with a comprehensive view of the operational environment.

The concept and organization of the IDC was based on a need to address the information challenge in Afghanistan. Providing equal access to data and knowledge across all partners and networks is a fundamental change in approach for collection, analysis and dissemination of mission-related information in ISAF. By integrating data, information and knowledge into one information organization with an integrated information-system architecture, the IJC’s Information Dominance Center enables decision makers at all echelons, in government and nongovernment organizations and throughout the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The IDC continues to use innovation, organization and technology to enable common understanding in the face of a complex informational environment.

Col. George Franz, USA, is chief, Combined Joint Analysis and Control Element, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC), Kabul, Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. David Pendall, USA, is the chief CJ2 planner for the IJC Future Operations Planning Team in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Jeffery Steffen, USA, is a senior analyst in the IJC. He serves as the host nation information requirements (HNIR) coordinator for the IJC.

Civil-Military Overview:
International Security Assistance Force:
Ronna-Afghan Web Portal: