Common Themes Vex Coalition Operations

May 19, 2009

Although there has been a great deal of progress in streamlining information sharing among allied forces over the past decade, many impediments remain. As the panelists at this morning's session on the challenges surrounding information sharing in a coalition environment noted, the devil is in the details.

One point of discussion was how difficulties with coalition information sharing were mirrored by the lack of information assurance standards throughout the U.S. military services and intelligence agencies. History is a key factor behind this situation, said Steven Pitcher, chief of the Joint Staff's information sharing branch. He explained that when the services set up information sharing arrangements, they focus on the joint or interoperability aspects first, but rarely manage the process to include coalition forces. A key challenge is a lack of uniform certifications across the Defense Department.

An area where some progress is being made is in federated identity and secure collaboration systems. Social networking tools can be very effective in unclassified networks for stability operations and humanitarian work, said Pitcher. Although there has been a lot of work done on the technology and policy aspects of information sharing, the challenge remains in properly merging the two aspects in ways that military personnel can use effectively.

Col. Mark Nickson, U.S. Africa Command's (AFRICOM's) Deputy Director for C4 systems, offered the example of his command where technology is vital for information sharing. A key part of his job, the colonel explained, is working through the tactics, procedures and process for sharing information with African nations. He noted that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have great potential with AFRICOM and its partners, but policies must first be put in place to need to use them.

When asked if social networking at the personal level is even desirable, Theresa Ramsey, executive advisor to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Intelligence, replied that identification-who someone is and what their role is-remains a challenge in coalition environments. She added that there is currently no mechanism for role-based identification in government level international networks. A trusted coalition/multinational operating environment would have enormous potential, she said.

The operational and intelligence communities also have very different perspectives on network security and risk. Pitcher explained that strong authentication is a key because military users on the ground by the nature of their mission must take risks. He noted that the intelligence and operational groups often don't understand each other very well and that both need to work together to better need their mutual needs. However, he said that trust and cultural differences will be the greatest hurdles to overcome.

A core issues is data ownership, which is in the hands of the organizations that collect the data. Ramsey said that the a major inhibitor to coalition information sharing is the third agency rule-data must be approved by a third agency before it can be shared by two coalition partners. She added that the agencies and services are fighting this rule by developing their own workarounds. But workarounds break down trust because each party does not trust the other with its information.

One way to solve this issue is to take steps to mark and label data to ensure information sharing, said Pitcher. He observes that it took nearly 50 years of agency stove piping to get to this state of affairs. Coalitions allies will not share their data if its security is in doubt.  "A lot of the policies out there were written by people who never had to implement them. If they had to, they would change them," he said.

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