Telecommunications Mixes Signals to Industry and Military

April 2000
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

The future of telecommunications is being shaped by new usage trends driven by emerging technologies. These trends long have molded both military and civilian requirements.

In 1970, one year before Intel invented the semiconducting microprocessor, futurist Alvin Toffler predicted the passing of the industrial revolution in favor of a service-oriented economy. In his book, titled Future Shock, Toffler only slightly missed the information-centric nature of this revolution, which he called the third wave. Our new information age is not driven by a sudden increase in humankind’s knowledge, however. It is fueled by the explosion of information technologies that are spawning new volumes of data and lines of connectivity. And, providing the key link to and among these arenas is telecommunications.

Most information age achievements are credited to fast, inexpensive microprocessors that opened the world of computing to virtually any individual with a desktop. It truly is connectivity, however, that enables the broad proliferation of information that defines our era. With its own rapid advances, telecommunications technology is reshaping applications.

In the information age, telecommunications is an umbrella word with different definitions for its many users. Clearly delineating the discipline is not unlike trying to bring legacy systems into a new world. Many people associate it with traditional means such as copper cabling among neighborhoods. Today, however, the traditional definitions are too limiting in an era of fiber optics, direct satellite telephony and wireless Internet access.

In the connectivity world, there are two sides to telecommunications: civilian and military. In the past, these two worlds were separate and unequal. Then, commercial technologies began fueling military advances, and commercial systems were increasingly incorporated into defense applications. Many military operations now depend substantially on commercial telecommunications. While the technological distinctions between the two may be fading, some of their key differences are becoming more apparent.

On the civilian side, most of the near-term telecommunications issues will be centered on e-commerce. Not only is e-commerce the main economic engine behind the proliferation of telecommunications systems, it also has the broadest impact on the greatest number of people. The pencil is rapidly fading as a primary implement in daily life as individuals turn to computers and personal digital assistants for managing task lists, scheduling appointments, and paying bills by electronic transfer instead of by check.

However, this connectivity is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, people will be more efficient in their daily endeavors, both professionally and personally. On the negative side, the growing reliance on data access is establishing a new dependence on information systems. Rather than freeing people from conventional links to information, the advent of wireless access to the Internet ultimately ties people more closely to their vital data.

This increased convenience can become a hindrance if information links are severed, whether by accident or by design. Without expected connectivity, people could find themselves unable to accomplish even their most basic tasks. And, businesses and financial institutions that fuel the Free World’s powerful economic growth engine could grind to a halt.

This is especially true on the other side of telecommunications—the military community. The development of telecommunications activity as a warfighting instrument will be similar to the development of other weapon systems. As new offensive capabilities evolve, opponents develop better defenses or countermeasures. It will be an iterative process as experts create offensive and defensive telecommunications activities and capabilities. Accordingly, planners and participants alike must place information security at the top of the priority list.

At the AFCEA Rocky Mountain Chapter’s SpaceCom 2000, recently held in Colorado Springs, Vice Adm. Herb Browne, USN, noted that the U.S. Space Command now views information as a weapon. For the first time, officials at the command are thinking in terms of how information is used in offensive operations and how it is protected in a defensive mode. The command’s new missions for computer network security are leading to information as a primary warfighting tool. For the military, this points to telecommunications as both a delivery system and a weapon.

Already, the lines between the operations directorate—the J-3—and the command, control, communications and computers directorate—the J-6—are blurring. To the military, it is becoming less important whether telecommunications supports warfighting or is a weapon in and of itself. This debate may continue for another three to five years, but it ultimately will be resolved as the Free World becomes even more reliant on newer capabilities.

Beyond that three-to-five-year time frame, no one can predict telecommunications trends. This uncertainty leaves both warfighters and commercial executives uneasy. The telecommunications world of 2010, both civilian and military, will depend as much on the popularity of emerging applications as it will on new enabling technologies. As they become key operating elements—rather than supporting elements—in the military and commercial arenas, telecommunications applications will become more sector-oriented. Planners, long sensitive to the anticipated requirements of both sectors, must keep that in mind as they head into this dynamic future.