Making the Whole Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

June 2001
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

The ongoing revolution in battlefield information systems has generated an intriguing irony. Information technology is empowering individual warfighters far more now than ever before, yet at the same time it is tying them together to an unprecedented degree. On the one hand, soldiers, sailors and airmen are able to serve more roles and to undertake actions of greater significance, as they are both armed with increased amounts of information and capable of providing more vital data to other warfighters and decision makers. On the other hand, these individuals are tied to each other to a greater degree in the network-centric battlefield. As their importance as individuals has increased, so has their importance as nodes in a network. This opens up a host of challenges in areas ranging from technology to doctrine and culture.

More than ever, bandwidth demands stand ready to tax system managers. Having more users wanting to move greater amounts of data leads to a severely strained network. The success of data collectors and information processors threatens to choke communications pipelines. One potential solution effectively would impose information rationing. Users would tap only information that is vital to their missions and thereby avoid clogging bandwidth with comprehensive, but extraneous, data.

These technical bandwidth challenges occur against the backdrop of growing commercial demands for vital spectrum. Telecommunications companies have identified key portions of military bandwidth as essential for deploying next-generation wireless personal communications systems. Reallocating this defense spectrum would impose substantial logistical and financial burdens on military planners and operators, as many defense communicators have attested.

Interoperability remains a goal yet to be attained fully. Information can be exchanged readily at the strategic level, but command levels below that can run into difficulties posed by legacy stovepipe systems. All the services are committed to interoperability. However, as information extends its reach down to the individual warfighter, interoperability at lower levels moves from desirable to essential.

This problem is further complicated on the international stage. Future conflicts likely will involve coalition forces, and recent operations highlighted a yawning information technology gap between the United States and many of its Western allies. A military built around the concept of ubiquitous information flow may find it difficult to operate in an environment where that flow is restricted among its essential allies.

As network nodes proliferate down to the individual warfighter level, so do the problems of network security. Each node becomes a potential breach or an access point for various forms of countermeasures. The simplest system in the wrong hands conceivably could provide an adversary with access to an operational network. Defense experts are planning a series of security measures ranging from layered firewalls to biometric verification procedures, but information security is a discipline that is constantly on the cutting edge of change. In this information environment, the price of networked forces is eternal security vigilance.

The traditional command structure must adapt to individual warfighters sharing responsibilities to a greater degree. While the advantages of increased empowerment are wasted without greater autonomy, the rapid-response battlespace also demands tighter coordination of smaller, more mobile assets. Commanders need to factor these attributes into their plans lest this seeming contradiction become a hindrance in the theater of battle.

And, all these challenges are emerging against a backdrop of some of the most significant changes in the U.S. defense structure. The Bush administration is looking to leap ahead in defense technologies and systems to deal with radically changing missions and capabilities. Without question, the advanced technologies that lie at the heart of AFCEA activities will form the core of the new U.S. defense posture.

These challenges are not insoluble—in fact, they can be surmounted with relatively little difficulty.

To accomplish this, the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) community must come together. Only as a true community can it address these challenges efficiently and effectively. Eliminating stovepipe systems will require the elimination of stovepipe planning. Adopting a single-community approach to planning and procurement can help avoid unnecessary duplication of assets and procedures.

Also, this C4ISR community can speak as a single voice during public debate on vital issues such as bandwidth allocation. Other facets of the defense community learned how to participate in the public debate long ago, and now the C4ISR community faces the same degree of urgency.

Information systems are driving a significant revolution in military affairs. Only by working together as one can the C4ISR community fully realize the advantages of this revolution that empowers the individual warfighter.