Data Holds the Key to Network-Centricity

January 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Two U.S. Air Force airmen call in air support during coalition combat operations in Fallujah, Iraq, late last year. Network-centric operations are producing results already in Iraq, but key decisions lie ahead for the defensewide concept to achieve its full potential.
New challenges emerge as technology reaches warfighters.

Data identification is emerging as the primary challenge facing network-centric warfare. Many elements of network-centric operations have been field-tested in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and user feedback is giving U.S. Defense Department planners insight into capabilities and drawbacks. These lessons learned span both technological and cultural issues, and defense experts are adapting their efforts to deal with both disciplines.

The Defense Department is developing a data strategy that will serve as the crucial underpinning of the network-centric transformation. This strategy will ensure the ability of diverse defense community organizations to share data and information across domains among different classes of users. The result will be improved interoperability, reduced system software maintenance costs and enhanced multidomain participation.

However, the push toward network-centric operations is at a key juncture where budget pressures may force defense planners to choose between platforms and electrons. Dr. Linton Wells II, acting assistant secretary of defense for network and information integration (ASD NII [A]) and Defense Department chief information officer, believes that now is not the time to abandon or even slow the transformation to a network-centric force.

“Clearly, it is going to be an austere budget environment—some have characterized it as the tunnel at the end of the light,” Wells says. “But, the upside is that we have demonstrated lessons learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan that network-centric really works.

“Network-centric transformation is delivering, and it is delivering now,” he declares.

Elaborating on how the Defense Department is leveraging the societal transformations that are taking place in the information revolution, Wells explains that the department is delivering capabilities right now that are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq. These technology-driven capabilities are benefiting personnel in those two theaters in real-world operations, not just hypothetically, he emphasizes.

“Today’s initiatives are delivering on their promise, and it’s only going to accelerate.”

Several priorities dominate Defense Department network-centricity efforts. Wells states that the goal is to get to “power to the edge.” This means creating an agile, robust, interoperable, collaborative department comprising warfighters, business and intelligence users all sharing knowledge on a secure, dependable, global network.

At the core of this goal is a move from smart push to smart pull. This will require having user-defined operational pictures instead of a common operational picture. The user would be able to pull the data off of the network.

However, Wells warns that these capabilities must permit their effective use in new engagements instead of in conflicts that only rehash old fights. The force requires network-centric operations that work in the asymmetric environment of the back alleys of Fallujah as well as in the desert against conventional entrenched infantry forces.

A multipath environment will require greater use of commercial technology, such as repeaters and interfaces between military and commercial technologies. Wells relates how U.S. Marines in Fallujah last June mounted an enhanced position location radio system, or EPLRS, radio atop a 40-foot mast to keep in touch with their high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) driving around the city. Commercial repeaters used for civil fire and rescue services could serve the same application, he observes.

Moving toward a more data-centric environment also should permit U.S. forces to interoperate better with allies in the type of coalition warfare that likely will characterize asymmetric warfare challenges, Wells suggests. A recent demonstration of the Multinational Interoperability Programme, or MIP, featured a Portuguese commander with Canadian and U.S. subcommanders. The Portuguese commander was able to change icons in his operational display so that the Canadian and U.S. officers could read the changed data on their own displays.

Traditional definitions must be updated. For example, with every networked warfighter possessing advanced situational awareness, the concept of command and control (C2) will need to address issues such as the source of an order to change direction.

And, security must be built into network elements from the beginning instead of later. “Probably the most stupid idea we could think of is becoming dependent on a network that is not secure,” Wells declares.

Wells states that the department is striving to sustain the momentum of some large programs, including the Global Information Grid-Bandwidth Expansion (GIG-BE), the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) and Transformational Satellite (T-SAT). He believes that the GIG-BE program is in good shape, and the department has stood up a new directorate—Contingency Support and Migration Planning, or CSMP—to provide NII support for real-world contingencies that intervene in the vision of building the GIG. Moving highband advances into the threshold levels of JTRS documents is important (see box, page 40), and this will open up communications into interoperability frequency bands heretofore unavailable. “Winning the warfighter over to the network-centric concept will rely heavily on the success of JTRS,” he advises.

A U.S. Air Force staff sergeant prepares to launch a Desert Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle in Southwest Asia. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information collected from a variety of sources will contribute to a user-defined operational picture that will be available via a “smart pull” approach.
The T-SAT effort is vital to achieving many GIG goals, Wells warrants. The U.S. Army will never achieve the necessary support for communications on the move that it needs for the Future Combat Systems without T-SAT, he maintains. T-SAT is the key enabler for many other systems, and the department needs it as soon as it is ready. “All of these systems are interrelated, but T-SAT is unique because we have to be able to deliver that capability eventually,” he warrants.

Wells describes as “striking” some of the initiatives generated by soldiers using other systems in Southwest Asia. For example, the Naval Postgraduate School has established the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Network, or STAN. It is based on wireless standards 802.11 and 802.16. Some environments that do not face a major jamming or sophisticated interception threat—such as the mountains of Afghanistan—can use technologies such as this with commercial encryption.

The introduction of network-centric systems into Afghanistan and Iraq recently has given Defense Department planners the ability to gauge the validity of some theories about cultural effects of network-centricity. With that, they are discovering that even more remains to be learned.

“There is an interaction between leadership and technology that I am not sure has been fully explored,” Wells says. “When you talk to a number of commanders about what you get with a common operational picture, people say, ‘That is really interesting, but it terrifies me because it now gives commanders the ability to micromanage and destroy the great strength of our armed forces—the junior officers and senior enlisted.’ But, I think that this is something doable with tactics, techniques and procedures, and training.”

He cites as an example U.S. Navy experiences with the Joint Operational Tactical System, or JOTS. At first, some fleet commanders would yield to the temptation to direct maneuver from headquarters. In time, however, a fleet commander would delegate authority to the composite warfare commander, and Wells believes that this acceptance of the need for delegation may serve as a model for avoiding micromanagement.

The biggest cultural problem is not micromanagement but data sharing. Questions remain as to how many commands will share information; how much information from theater will move up the chain to Washington; and whether every bit of data will be placed on the GIG—or if not, how much. Then come the issues of sharing information with civil government organizations.

Developing the rule sets that allow the data to be tagged automatically is a major challenge. The department must adopt a common schema for metadata tagging, Wells allows. This includes ways of tagging data “at birth,” he emphasizes. “We know it doesn’t work to have someone sitting there typing in key words in his intelligence report as he writes it,” Wells states.

So, the department is developing its data strategy to address these concerns. This strategy underlies all elements of the network-centric transformation. Not many people realize that this is the core of the transformation, Wells offers, but it touches on the five large programs that stand out among transformational efforts: GIG-BE, JTRS, T-SAT, Network-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) and information assurance. Wells offers that the data strategy should assume the same importance as these five programs.

Another emerging challenge involves the civil side of the civil/military equation in a theater postwar environment. This civil element offers many valuable capabilities and has requirements that are just as valid as their military counterparts. However, these civilian aspects long have been overshadowed, and Wells states that the military must do a better job of embracing them.

This summer’s strong angel exercise highlighted the need to collaborate and communicate outside of the .mil domain, Wells says. This exercise examined these activities across domain boundaries with indigenous security services, nongovernmental organizations, commercial partners and, if applicable, the United Nations. He describes this exercise, which built on a similar effort in 2000, as extraordinarily successful.

Among its successes was the ability to chat in one language and get the message out in up to 12 other languages at the receiving end. Similarly, experts could provide a text translation of an Al-Jazeera broadcast to field users. This represents a significant technological leap forward compared to previous capabilities.

Gen. John Abizaid, USA, commander of the U.S. Central Command, is considering moving the core C2 network for his headquarters from the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) to Centrixs, which itself is migrating to the Multinational Information Sharing (MNIS) program. So, the department must find a way to sustain Centrixs at the level at which combatant commanders will be using it even during the migration, Wells points out.

Another issue that concerns Wells is that industry should include more security in its products. “We have to rely better on more secure COTS [commercial off-the-shelf products], and we must encourage industry to do more secure COTS,” Wells states. “If you look at the incentives that will be guided by liability and preferential insurance rates, that will increase the security of COTS. But it will not get you to the stage where [COTS products] will withstand a dedicated attack by a state-sponsored information warfare enemy,” he adds. “That is a kind of market failure in the model, and we need to find some way to increase security.”

Funding these needed improvements will be difficult. “It is going to be a tough budget year,” Wells offers. “The combination of pressures on the topline, along with the growing military benefits that Congress has voted on over the past few years, is squeezing discretionary funds, which are science and technology and procurement. And, in the digits versus widgets fight, historically the digits have always lost.

“However, if in fact the network is now the center of gravity—and network security is potentially our Achilles’ heel—then as we get to platform-centric versus network-centric decisions, hopefully some more decisions will go toward the network,” Wells expresses.

Wells observes that significant steps have been taken over the past year to help orient platforms to serve as better nodes in the network. Network-centric program reviews begun by Wells’ predecessor John Stenbit last year triaged many programs by their network-centricity. Legacy programs might be killed outright; they might be sustained without further research and development; or they might be transformed. These programs were evaluated against nine criteria in a process that Wells describes as “a real learning experience” both for Defense Department officials and for program managers. Now, a longer checklist of more than 20 pages has been incorporated into a formal guidance.

As always, bandwidth remains a concern. “Spectrum is absolutely crucial,” Wells declares. He expressed the hope that the congressional spectrum reimbursement account effort will help the Defense Department benefit from the auction of spectrum.

The spectrum initiative rolled out by the White House this past summer called for the Federal Communications Commission, which controls private use of spectrum, and the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, which oversees government spectrum use, to share 10 megahertz to examine ways of interoperating. Datalinks such as Common Data Link, or CDL, will require high-bandwidth pipes. “Clearly the spectrum below 3 gigahertz remains beachfront property,” Wells says. “We never have enough, and we have to find ways to be good stewards of what we have.” Lasers are one means of moving these systems out of the radio frequency spectrum to reduce bandwidth demands, he notes.

Commodity Terminals Offer a New Direction

In the Joint Tactical Radio System project, industry recently has made achievements with highband that are “quite significant and not particularly appreciated,” according to Dr. Linton Wells, acting assistant secretary of defense for network and information integration and U.S. Defense Department chief information officer. He would like to use this progress on highband to change the way the Defense Department buys satellite terminals. Currently, the department buys proprietary terminals that link to a satellite for the duration of its time in orbit, but Wells wants to commoditize this for a desktop unit that would have the functionality embedded in circuit cards. That way, the link capability could be upgraded by replacing cards as warranted.

However, the idea has not taken hold widely and even has run into resistance. “I’ve been surprised at how much resistance there has been to that,” he relates. “I would have thought that this would be seen as a really good idea that a lot of people would sign up to.”


Web Resources
U.S. Defense Department C4ISR Architecture Framework:

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