Military Crystal Ball Portends Network-Centric Supremacy

June 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
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However, interoperability remains a challenge for both joint and coalition operations.

The U.S. military is counting on the information superhighway in its march toward continued battlefield supremacy. As outlined in two recent studies describing future force goals, network-centric warfare is at the core of plans to ensure that military domination is maintained. The aim is for information to be the primary tool enabling U.S. forces to respond to and overcome any military challenge in any arena worldwide.

However, many hurdles must be surmounted to reach this target. Foremost among these is interoperability, which remains elusive at the coalition and joint task force operational levels. Solving this dilemma may require a major organizational change to remove information technology purchasing authority from the individual services. Commanders also may need to increase unit experimentation with new information technologies keeping interoperability in mind.

Bandwidth challenges loom in both the tactical and political arenas. Users may have to limit the degree of detail in their messages to ensure sufficient battlefield bandwidth. And, even if joint interoperability becomes a reality, the military information technology gap between the United States and its allies threatens to become a chasm as these technologies increase in importance.

These hurdles are not forcing the military to rethink its concept of infospace dominance, however. The United States is still committed to achieving information superiority as outlined in Joint Vision 2010 and Joint Vision 2020.

“The new silver bullet for the military is information,” declares Lt. Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg, Jr., USA, director, command, control, communications and computer systems, J-6, the Joint Staff. “It may seem small, but it is a bullet full of ones and zeros.”

This silver bullet is the key to continued U.S. military supremacy, Gen. Kellogg warrants. Meeting current information technology goals will produce a network-centric fighting force capable of overpowering an adversary through rapid maneuver and battlefield dominance.

“We would have a military that is fully and functionally networked and will totally empower this concept of network-centric warfare, where the network takes pre-eminence over the platform,” Gen. Kellogg posits. “This doesn’t mean that the winner is information, but instead that information now enables the military services to fight much faster than anyone else can.

“It is not a technology issue. It is an organizational issue to ensure that the technology is totally networked. You will have a military that fights very agilely and is able to make decisions and employ forces very fast in a joint environment—faster than anyone else can,” he declares.

“In network-centric warfare, the networking of systems lets you do that,” he allows. “Are we there now? The answer is no, we are not. Are we going to get there? I believe we will. We will find a military that has used information technology as the key enabler in Joint Vision 2020 to fight smarter, faster and react quicker than any other nation in the world.”

Today, most systems at the strategic level are interoperable, and the tactical level often does not require full interoperability. At the operational level, however, command and control of a joint task force lacks the necessary interoperability, the general observes.

Achieving interoperability at the joint task force level remains the biggest challenge facing the J-6, Gen. Kellogg states. He explains that the Global Command and Control System and the joint systems are not fully interoperable at that level, but this will be key in a war. And, the general offers that there is “a low probability” that this interoperability conflict can be fixed.

One reason is that achieving command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) interoperability has become “a black science,” Gen. Kellogg states. “You get people involved and they talk about it, and we have not been very good as a group at explaining how it should be done and how we need to manage it.”

He continues that the C4ISR community tends to default to systems and technical architectures instead of working operational architectures. As a result, the community does not effectively describe its systems and goals in operational terms. During budgeting debates, for example, advocates of ground force improvements can describe clearly how a tank will function and affect the course of a battle. The C4ISR community does not do this well, Gen. Kellogg relates.

The general also observes that the services currently have the legal authority to recruit, train, equip and maintain forces. As aresult, the services tend to pursue their own courses with their own resources. This element of independence is a roadblock to further interoperability in information technology.

“Until you consolidate resources in the information arena, you will always have service prerogatives taking primacy over joint prerogatives,” Gen. Kellogg declares. “Joint prerogatives not only will be secondary, they may in fact become tertiary. Until you break that model, I don’t think you can be fully successful in interoperability.”

For example, aircraft using Link 16 cannot interoperate with U.S. Army forces using the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS) for digital transmission. Tanks roaming the battlefield with EPLRS cannot digitally communicate with Link 16-equipped systems.

The general calls for consolidating resourcing and requirements at the joint operations support center level. This would ensure system interoperability based on how they are built and paid for. If this authority were established, setting up the new process and instructing personnel in operating within it would probably take about one year. After establishing the process, however, the industrial buy-in would take another six months to a year. “It’s not just money; it’s the whole process,” he emphasizes.

Part of the interoperability drive is experimentation, and the general calls for more effort in this arena. He cites the U.S. Pacific Command as a leader in command and control experimentation. Saying that this command is “out front” of the rest of the defense community, the general allows that the military as a whole has not yet sufficiently exploited that approach to incorporating interoperability. The Joint Forces Command also has pursued interoperability experimentation with its Unified Vision and Millennium Challenge events, but these two thrusts should be incorporated across the services.

The military’s increased reliance on commercial technologies and systems will improve interoperability in some areas, but it brings up other challenges. Foremost among these is security. Gen. Kellogg notes that security is not as much of a concern in the commercial marketplace as in the battlefield. Accordingly, the military must emphasize information assurance in its commercial acquisitions.

For example, many software companies develop new products around the clock. Laboratories are based in different countries around the globe, and employees can electronically pass work from one time zone to another as if changing shifts. Foreign personnel often staff overseas facilities and write code that may wind up in key defense systems. It is virtually impossible to pore through millions of lines of code searching for hidden trapdoors or other potential problems. “You must make an assumption that there will be bugs in the system when you pick up a product out of a box,” the general states as he emphasizes the importance of vigilant information assurance.

Bandwidth availability also remains a key concern. The commercial sector is vying with the defense community for several sections of bandwidth that currently are occupied by military systems. These spectra have become desirable with the advent of third-generation (3G) mobile communications. Gen. Kellogg notes that many military systems were shunted to their current operating bands because no commercial users wanted those parts of the spectrum. Consequently, the military invested billions of dollars in communications systems specifically for those bands.

The Army’s Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE), for example, is one of several systems that would be “very, very, very difficult to move” out of existing spectrum. Relocating its bandwidth would be expensive, take considerable time and involve complicated logistics. Congress has mandated that industry reimburse the military for the cost of spectrum reallocation, but these costs could prove far more expensive than the commercial sector currently realizes. Other related systems also would have to be changed. Retooling these systems to work on another part of the spectrum could take at least a decade.

“The ability to move off there to systems that propagate as well is doubtful,” the general states. “We need to hold onto what we have out there.”

Keeping control of existing spectrum is only half the puzzle, however. The proliferation of military information systems is taxing available bandwidth.

Some of the heavy bandwidth demands are being accommodated by satellite communications such as the global broadcast system. Similarly, more communications systems under construction will add capacity to the available bandwidth. The problem tends to arise at the tactical level, Gen. Kellogg offers, and the solution may be to reduce the amount of information traveling at that level.

“Maybe we need to evaluate ourselves and cut back on how much we are trying to pass,” he suggests. “How much information do we want to go to the battlefield? I don’t think we’ve addressed that very well,” he declares.

“In today’s environment at the tactical level, operational commanders want to know what color the enemy’s underwear is. I don’t think we need to know that; I don’t think we need to pass that much information across the battlefield, which takes up a lot of bandwidth,” Gen. Kellogg emphasizes. While technical methods such as data compression can permit high-volume file transmission across the battlefield, the real key lies in conserving bandwidth.

“It’s not a clean answer. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to get more bandwidth because … .’ You have to break it down into discrete items, and then you can talk about what you need it for,” he warrants. “Let’s use this [bandwidth] smarter.” The Navy’s demand assigned multiple access (DAMA) addressed bandwidth requirements using a version of this approach, the general adds.

Ensuring interoperability among the U.S. services is only one aspect of joint operations. Future conflicts likely will be waged within a coalition environment, and a growing information technology gap between the United States and Europe poses challenges for a networked battlespace. The general notes the problems facing planners, but emphasizes that the United States will not cut back on its technology modernization to give the allies a chance to catch up.

“We are not going to slow down because they are behind us,” Gen. Kellogg declares. “We cannot afford to do that. The U.S. military must remain the pre-eminent military in the world when it comes to technology. Our job is to protect our personnel and ensure that we give them the tools to win the battle.”

He continues that the intent is to share that technology “to the best degree possible.” However, the ability to accomplish this comes down to funding. Command and control digitization is a very expensive proposition, as the U.S. Army is discovering. The Army is digitizing its forces in a phased approach because it does not have the funds to digitize the entire Army in the near term. Other nations have similar budgetary concerns.

The only way to offset this digital gap is to build relationships through liaison teams among allied nations. Even so, coalition operations likely will feature “a high-low mix, and you will have to accept that,” he states. The U.S. military has accepted a high-low mix, as some Army units are digitized while others are not. Coalitions will have to endure the same conditions.

The United States is not going to “give away” its high-technology systems, he continues, and allies do not have the money to catch up. Accordingly, allied forces must determine ways to bridge the gap in some select areas. “What you probably will see are very narrow linkages between the United States and coalition partners,” Gen. Kellogg suggests.