Building a Commercial Trans-Atlantic Bridge

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

One year ago, I discussed the role that AFCEA International can play in supporting interoperability among coalition forces. Until recently, that interoperability drive largely has focused on ensuring that vital equipment is built to the same standards on both sides of the Atlantic. The primary hurdle to be overcome was incompatibility among different nations’ information systems, and building new systems along the lines of common standards helped us move toward built-in interoperability.

This approach largely entailed establishing military-to-military understanding between the United States and its European allies. Today, this effort is being spearheaded by Allied Command Transformation headed by Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., USN. Now, however, the key to interoperability lies in more than just military standards. Industry is at the heart of any potential solution that achieves interoperability among the forces of the Free World, and it is industry that holds the solution to ensuring interoperability among coalition allies—if government will allow it.

In the recent past, vital military systems emerged largely from the font of defense research and development. The commercial sector played a role in helping to bring these developments to fruition as a final assembly-line product, but system origins definitely lay with the military.

However, it is industry that now is leading the military technology revolution, especially in the information technology community. Defense planners have recognized that the commercial sector can bring information technologies to the military arena faster. Consequently, the fielded technologies are more up-to-date than if they had come through laborious military procurement and acquisition processes. Similarly, the commercial marketplace is driving new advances as firms vie for market share and growth. The result is that the military is purchasing ever-increasing amounts of commercial off-the-shelf hardware, software and systems.

So, a key to enabling vital coalition interoperability is for European and U.S. industry to understand the direction in which each industry is headed. U.S. industry is following the transformation policy set by the U.S. Defense Department. Recognizing that there are several steps in increasing that industry-to-industry understanding, Adm. Giambastiani has gathered NATO leadership and has invited industry to attend a one-day symposium this month in Berlin. AFCEA is pleased to have been asked to support this event, through its European office and its regional vice presidents, by helping to bring together appropriate European industry leadership.

For years, AFCEA has been recognized as the premier organization for bringing government and industry together. Now, the association is working to bring industry and industry together—European industry and U.S. industry. The stakes are no less important than when the government/industry alliance helped win the Cold War.

There is a lot riding on the success of this trans-Atlantic bridge—and there are substantial barriers that must be overcome.

Every country has complex restrictions to international trade in key technology areas. These restrictions can take two forms. Beginning during the Cold War, the allied governments worked carefully to ensure that vital technologies did not depart their shores for the arsenals of Free World adversaries. In the non-military realm, governments also restricted technologies to ensure that industrial intellectual capital did not move from one nation to another.

These efforts have developed such a life of their own that their original purpose seems to have been overridden by the negative effects they now have. I have been disappointed at the difficulty posed in the United States by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to sharing technology and information with allies. It is amazing that we can ask other countries to send their sons and daughters to fight—and possibly die—alongside our forces, yet we are so inflexible in sharing industrial progress in the information technology arena. There seems to be a mismatch between the appetite to involve countries’ militaries and the readiness to share even relatively minor advances in technologies.

Governments have more reticence to the sharing of technology secrets than do the businesses that developed the technologies. If the United States is to aim for increased coalition operations in both frequency and scope, then it must review the current restrictions on sharing industry ideas and concepts. It is essential that businesses providing technologies vital to modern military forces work more in concert.

Government needs to find a way to facilitate industry’s sharing of technology among allies. The easiest way to do this is to shift the burden of proof.

Currently, industry must justify to government why it should share technology across national borders. Government can veto that sharing if it desires. Instead of this construct, we should adopt a system where industry is “innocent until proven guilty” when it wants to share technology overseas. Government would have to justify the “why not” of any opinion opposing a specific international technology sharing—and quickly.

Standards no longer are the obstacle to interoperability. Hard-working people in Europe and in the United States are striving to ensure coalition force interoperability. It is government’s turn to lift the restrictions shackling them and truly reap the benefits of industry.