Collaboration Enables Technological Slight of Hand

May 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A U.S. Army soldier with the 14th Cavalry Regiment radios information on Iraqis as his unit searches for insurgents near the Syrian border. Mobile communications are one of the beneficiaries of collaborative technologies making their way into the network-centric force.
Networks become flexible in more ways than one.

Collaborative technologies are leading the revolution in military affairs as they help commanders and warfighters realize long-sought capabilities in the network-centric force. These technologies’ effects range from a more fluid network in theater to a new set of missions for special operations forces.

Dr. Alex Bordetsky, associate professor of information sciences and director of the Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, explains that collaborative technologies are the main vehicle for moving toward distributed command and control as well as for enabling data sharing in a network-centric environment. He describes them as central to the ongoing transformation to network-centric operations.

“We are at a very interesting point where collaborative tools are becoming a part of the operational environment,” Bordetsky states. “I see both vertical and horizontal proliferation, which means that we are at a critical point of collaborative tools becoming a part of the day-to-day command and control environment.”

Dr. John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, says that “collaborative technologies are a tremendous force multiplier. You can do more and more with less mass.”

Information technologies in general long have been called force multipliers. What sets collaborative technologies apart is that they are redesigning the networks. Instead of being a grid for vertical information flow, the network would enable crosscurrents that defeat echelon levels. “What happens is that true networking will undermine any hierarchy,” Arquilla warrants.

Arquilla explains that today’s military network operations are very hierarchical in terms of command and control. Collaborative technologies will allow the network itself to set the higher levels of strategy. “Think of the commander’s intent being expressed, not in a series of detailed orders but rather in a simple posting of his wishes each day,” he suggests.

“I like to call it a kind of ‘eBay’ approach to strategic command,” Arquilla continues. “Forces distributed all over the battlespace can logon and say, ‘Oh, look at the high value there for taking out that bridge or for securing this town over here.’ Then they can make decisions based on that, and the commander will monitor what is happening and adjust his point values for those items on his list. And, if everyone avoids going after the harder targets, then either he can raise the point value for those harder targets or he can get back into traditional command and just order someone to go after it.”

Arquilla adds that this approach already is being taken on some air campaigns and is being employed with some close air-ground coordination. “We’re already beginning to see this kind of coordination of strategy from below, not just from the top.”

Collaborative technologies empower small units more than ever before, and these technologies also give commanders greater confidence to spread their forces in a more distributed manner. This becomes especially important when fighting an insurgency, Arquilla adds.

The biggest change underway in the military is that leaders are encouraging lateral flows of information in the field, Arquilla states. For example, a special operations force team in Afghanistan can communicate directly with another via a tactical Web page. No longer do individuals or groups need to send information up through the chain of command for filtering, analysis and distribution. Arquilla adds that this approach also is employed by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. The result is more units of maneuver than either group ever had before.

Bordetsky explains that collaborative tools represent the application layer for agile communications. They create the application layer response that wireless communications must satisfy. So, these tools determine which communications will be used. “The way we configure the application environment of collaborative tools affects our architectural solutions on an ad hoc wireless environment,” Bordetsky says.

He explains that the military is quickly coming up with a multiplatform solution in which low- and high-bandwidth links coexist. This is coming to pass because the collaborative environment has the capability of adapting application flows.

Bordetsky believes that the collaborative technologies that create profound effects are those that enable peer-to-peer communications and data sharing. This becomes vital when command centers share data and extend their network on the move, especially among seaborne and land-based assets.

“Collaborative tools are capable of creating a rapid-deployment data-sharing environment across the board, including military and civilian units as well as in a coalition environment,” Bordetsky says.

During the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, the Joint Forces Maritime Command Center set up a collaborative environment in several hundred locations. This effort comprised naval units at large, local police, emergency responders, nongovernmental organizations, medical units, recovery units and other military elements.

This collaborative environment required some experimental wireless communications solutions to be deployed rapidly, Bordetsky relates. Ship-to-shore communications, for example, enabled salvage divers to be a part of the environment. “This was a collaborative system designed with a very high level of awareness of what each of the parties is doing,” he explains. “This draws it close to military situational awareness interfaces.”

Arquilla states that the West is in the first great war between nations and networks, and it is up against a network that operates in roughly 60 countries with small distributed units that are highly networked with each other. These foes are smart enough to have been driven off their satellite telephones, and they eschew most means of communications that are easily penetrated by Western intelligence-gathering mechanisms. “We spend about $40 billion a year to monitor telephone and other communications, but we tend not to emphasize the World Wide Web and the Internet enough,” Arquilla charges.

The United States’ tracking methods have driven al-Qaida to rely on ingenious ways of hiding on the Web. For example, the terrorists have learned that they risk discovery just by using a particular machine that can be located through an Internet service provider. So they have resorted to using cyber cafés. “It is a relentless cat-and-mouse game that goes on between the two,” Arquilla relates.

Naval Postgraduate School students use collaborative tools in a tactical network field topology experiment run by Bordetsky at Camp Roberts last month.
“We hold the initiative, we encroach on their information systems and they react,” he explains. “It’s a little bit like the battle of the North Atlantic in World War II, where one side or the other would have edges in hiding or finding.”

Some collaborative technologies that encompass data mining have the capacity to sift through large amounts of information on the Internet or the Web. These technologies try to pick up the trail of terrorist users who rely on the infosphere to exist. “Al-Qaida simply couldn’t exist without the Internet and the Web,” Arquilla maintains. “They hide in Web sites and they meet on massive multiplayer online game sites. Sometimes their e-mails don’t actually move anywhere—individuals simply logon and access a particular e-mail account, and messages are posted there by some master or controller. The operative in the field doesn’t even have to send a message—he just accesses it,” he relates.

The technologies being evaluated to detect these activities would empower a lot of hunters, Arquilla continues. “The fundamental dynamic in this war is hiders/finders. What I’d like to see is a huge number of hunter networks forming and being able to share information with each other about the clues they find on enemy behavior and location,” he offers.

“At the highest level, collaborative technologies will allow the military to use the full spectrum of information operations,” Arquilla states. In addition to their specific designed purposes, these technologies will help keep forces informed about a shifting situational awareness picture. In addition, collaborative technologies will help bring about what Arquilla calls cohesive psychological operations. “[Forces] would have enough information to be able to tell a nervous public that ‘well, we know what is going on and it’s going to be under control.’

“In stability operations, that aspect of IO [information operations] is going to be very crucial. It allows more people to be on the same page and to stay on the same page,” he emphasizes.

Many softer information operations are characterized by a lack of harmonization between units, services and the political and intelligence communities, Arquilla relates. Strategic communications must be harmonized among these participants to be successful, and collaborative technologies can be key enablers.

Bordetsky describes how the postgraduate school has been conducting an experiment linking land, air and sea assets. About 80 percent of it is taking place on the ground in Camp Roberts, where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are flown and operated over the network. Activities focus on a self-forming network capability supporting an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission. Information is provided through an unmanned aerial mesh, which also is used to expand the communication infrastructure.

Another aspect of this experiment involves maritime interdiction operations. Here, the effort enables two-way communications for a boarding party from the moment it leaves its mother ship through when it reaches the target vessel. “In this case, the network is not confined only within the tactical environment of the boarding party,” Bordetsky observes. “It expands to the Coast Guard operations center and analytical facilities across CONUS [the continental United States] through the VPN [virtual private network] infrastructure. That is where we will achieve Global Information Grid capability.”

The experiment includes an actual plug-and-play research network testbed. This network includes terminal locations into which operators plug in UAVs and small boats as well as ship-to-shore elements of the communications infrastructure. Bordetsky relates that experimenters are expanding this network to include European and Canadian sites along with other locations around the world.

The increased emphasis on special operations forces fits well with collaborative technologies, Arquilla states. “Special forces are attuned to collaborative technologies in ways that the other services simply are not,” he declares. “Special forces are accustomed to operating in small numbers over great distances with intense time pressure. In operation Enduring Freedom, 11 A-teams—about 300 of our forces on the ground—toppled the Taliban and al-Qaida largely because they operated in a highly networked fashion with each other and with air attack assets above them.”

Saying that special operations forces are a type of laboratory for 21st century warfare and are the model to follow, Arquilla offers that collaborative technologies allow many small units of maneuver to succeed on the battlefield. This military of “the many and the small” will replace the more traditional “the few and the large” approach to force deployment. “The technology itself is never going to be enlivened until you find the right organizational form and the right doctrine to go with it,” he says. “Special forces in particular already are organized and have the doctrines to operate in nonlinear ways that seek to exploit timely target information immediately.”

The aim is not to rapidly expand special operations forces. That would dilute their own quality and cause unintended problems, Arquilla says. Instead, the U.S. Defense Department should encourage general purpose forces to learn to do things in more special ways. The Marine Corps’ establishment of its own special operations command is a step that will help Marines work in smaller units, he adds.

Terrorist uses notwithstanding, the Web and the Internet already are having a revolutionary effect on networking, Arquilla says. Collaborative information technologies are likely to have their greatest impact on teleoperations. The true man-machine interface will be made possible by the new types of connectivity enabled by collaborative technologies.

The result will be greater remote control of military systems. Future field forces likely will have a lot of virtual military assets that are controlled remotely by their people. The future force will feature a blend of human and remote-piloted assets.

Good encryption is another key to unleashing the power of network centricity. Saying that there is too little encryption today in the military and civilian sectors, Arquilla states that the military is both “empowered and imperiled” by its reliance on information technology, but it does little to maintain proper security. “The biggest advances we need to make are in securing large flows of data,” he says.

Arquilla also mentioned technologies that allow networking and the real-time sharing of voice, video and text without relying on satellite bandwidth. “There is a whole world of connectivity available outside the realm of traditional fat pipes or satellite-reliant communications,” he observes.

The Navy Postgraduate School has pioneered a surveillance and target acquisition network (STAN) and a tactical network topology that require no satellite connectivity. These might involve linking units with low-technology assets such as tethered balloons or aerostats. “There is a kind of post-industrial approach to networking technologies that reaches back to simpler and older systems to convey radical new capabilities to forces,” Arquilla declares.


Web Resources
Naval Postgraduate School:
Naval Postgraduate School Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation:

Think Globally, Strike Tactically

Dr. Alex Bordetsky, associate professor of information sciences at the Naval Postgraduate School, offers that the effects from collaborative technologies are more evolutionary than revolutionary, because the revolution took place when warfighters became network nodes. Today’s network-centric force is well-positioned to take advantage of collaborative technology capabilities.

For example, officials might be trying to identify and track a high-value target at the tactical level of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. This would be taking place in a collaborative data-sharing network among several organizations, including several that are providing rapid data analysis while located far away from the theater. To improve video capabilities or to get an additional video feed to the theater, an official might spend substantial effort in deploying a new sensor such as an unmanned aerial vehicle.

But, an alternative would be to move the existing nodes—possibly including soldiers—closer to the area of interest. With this redirection would come increased bandwidth to improve video quality. So, existing sensor systems would be able to provide quality video via these relocated network nodes back to the headquarters.

“Those multiple platforms allow units on the ground to restructure their communications at the physical level on the move,” Bordetsky continues. “Mobility is a source of quality problems, and at the same time it is a solution.”

But, a network may lose vital wireless links on the ground because of terrain obstacles or enemy action, and circumstances prevent deploying air nodes or relocating nodes. A nearby television news crew with its own links could serve as the missing local network node if policy permits. “If my application network is established, I can reach the same nodes providing data into the shared workspace through totally different links that were not even part of the original architecture,” Bordetsky says of these ad hoc commercial links. “That is the profound effect of collaborative technology on the battlefield—it creates the application network that functions regardless of the changes at the physical and higher levels.”


Let History Be a Collaborative Guide

Today’s high-technology network-centric systems are not the first collaborative technologies to wield changes on military operations. Dr. John Arquilla,  professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, relates that the past can serve as a vivid example of how collaborative technologies worked their magic on military operations—and how some leaders were slow to recognize this, at great cost to their forces.

“There have been other collaborative technologies out there, and the responses to their use are revealing and suggest things that we should be thinking about,” he says. “The rise of the telegraph along with rail technology, for example, undermined all of what were the classical principles of warfare in the U.S. Civil War. [Union] Gen. George McClellan was very much a disciple of the principle of mass. He never had enough troops, even when he outnumbered the enemy considerably. He always wanted more, and he never met a reinforcement he didn’t like.

“President Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, understood that rail allowed him to move troops all over a large battlespace—basically one the size of Western Europe. The collaborative technology of the day, which was the telegraph, allowed coordination between forces and their control by the commander in chief and his senior military leaders. It allowed a whole different kind of campaign that was a kind of convergent assault on the Confederacy from many points. Lincoln understood the issues, strategy and doctrine that were implied—the changes that had to come and were empowered by the collaborative technology of his time.

“He had to fight a great deal of resistance over this and actually sacked one general after another until he finally found one—Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and his minions like Gen. William T. Sherman—who were willing to operate in this way. The efficiencies were so great that Gen. Grant was able both to maintain a command in the field in Virginia and to exercise some kind of supervision over all Union forces in the field—more than 1 million troops in the last year of the war.

“There are lessons to be learned there, and it always comes back to the point that, whatever the technology of collaboration—whether it is the telegraph, the radio or now the Web and the Internet—there is some new organizational form, some new doctrine and perhaps even an entire new strategy that will reveal itself through this technological change,” Arquilla states.

“Nine times out of ten, militaries love the technology but are highly resistant to employing [the technology] in ways that create new organizational structures or innovate with new doctrines,” he continues. “It takes an Abraham Lincoln—or, in the case of World War II, an Adm. Chester Nimitz who in the Pacific with his submarine campaign was highly innovative with a much more decentralized notion of command and control.

“The fact that military transformation today itself is such a problematic concept and is so heavily resisted by so many senior [leaders] in the military suggests that the United States military today is very much like those militaries over the past century and a half that have embraced new technology without embracing the changes in practices that are implied. This is something that is both counterproductive and, as the years go by, potentially quite dangerous for us,” Arquilla concludes.

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