Communications Convergence Breeds Opportunities

December 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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David Gergen, CNN commentator and an editor at-large for U.S. News and World Report, speaks at MILCOM 2009.

Future communications work viewed in light of looming budget constraints.

After decades of creating phenomenal information technology tools, the U.S. military is now focusing on convergence. The systems-of-systems approach gradually is being replaced by a more fully intertwining architecture into a powerful mash up. The benefits of initiatives that create unified communications capabilities are as dissimilar as the difference between having a single computer or radio and being part of a network.

Certain themes emerged throughout the MILCOM 2009 conference that have been heard during other U.S. military discussions as well: acquisition challenges, financial constraints, power to the tactical edge. Participants at the conference, which took place in Boston from October 19-21, 2009, shared not only their insights into present conditions but also their visions of the future. The solutions they discussed included the influence of President Barack Obama’s administration, troop movement from Iraq to Afghanistan, irregular warfare and new uses for social networking.

David Gergen, CNN commentator and editor at-large for U.S. News and World Report, led off the event by sharing his opinions about the impact both the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have on the future of the military. President Obama trusts Gates a great deal, Gergen said, and the secretary is likely to influence not only the operations transition from Iraq to Afghanistan but also the essence of the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Gates already has taken several steps that are affecting the U.S. military and its acquisition of information technology. While he understands the need to develop capabilities for the future fight, right now he specifically is interested in ensuring today’s warfighters have what they need. As a result, Gates has canceled several programs such as the T-SAT, and he has altered several others, including the Future Combat System program, Gergen said.

Although Gates has been very influential in the specifics of warfighting, Gergen allowed that when it comes to Afghanistan and future operations there, it is President Obama who will be making the key decisions.

MILCOM’s first panel discussion brought to light the importance of the convergence of information technology capabilities for security during major events and in preparation for national emergencies. Representatives from both Massachusetts and federal law enforcement agencies agreed that the large organizations responsible for taking action in these events are equipped to face these challenges; however, several smaller agencies cannot afford the state-of-the-art technologies that support unified communications. The panelists also admitted that publicly available social networking technologies are playing a larger part in ensuring that law enforcement officials at every level can obtain the information they need to operate effectively.


Lt. Gen. Ted F. Bowlds, USAF, is the commander of the Electronic Systems Center.

Lt. Gen. Ted F. Bowlds, USAF, commander, Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, asserted that the U.S. Defense Department will be drastically changing the way it does business with industry because of upcoming budget constraints. The top priorities for fiscal year 2012 will be shuffled as the economy and health care become larger concerns. “The spending spree that we all got to enjoy for the past five or six years is going to evaporate away from us. So, we’re going to have to be smarter in doing what we can with what we’ve got, or we’re going to have to be very, very smart in buying what we need,” Gen. Bowlds said.

Some of the solutions to this procurement dilemma may be addressed by viewing them in a whole new way. Richard J. Byrne, president, command and control center, the MITRE Corporation, presented an explanation of complexity theory and how it applies to communication systems and their acquisition. His premise is that the individual components of complex systems create emergent behavior, which comprises cooperating, repeating and responding to results that result in unpredictable behavior.

It is because of this unpredictability that procurement officials must be willing to accept less than 100 percent solutions. Byrne pointed out that this already is taking place in current theaters of operation. At least 60 percent of the solutions the U.S. Army is using are not part of programs of record, he said. Although it has become a cliché, information technology professionals and procurement officers must think outside the box when developing and purchasing systems for the military, Byrne stated. They must keep in mind that each system brings its own solutions, problems and “personalities” into the mix, resulting in unexpected results, he added.


Lt. Gen. Dennis Via, USA, is the director, command, control, communications and computer systems, J-6, the Joint Staff.

Emergent behavior became obvious on the second day of the conference when Lt. Gen. Dennis Via, USA, director, C4 systems, J-6, the Joint Staff, led a panel comprising some of the top military leaders in information technology today. Facing constrained budgets, the military will have to reshuffle its priorities and concentrate on buying and using systems that support the chain of information—rather than the chain of command—to the warfighters, Gen. Via shared.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the focus shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, stated Brig. Gen. (P) Mark S. Bowman, USA, director of architecture, operations, networks and space, office of the chief information officer/G-6, U.S. Army. Up until now, 80 percent of the people, equipment and funding has been dedicated to operation Iraqi Freedom. Shifting focus and troops from Iraq to Afghanistan is not as simple as transferring from one location to another, the general pointed out. As the balance in the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan changes, the United States must continue to operate communications bases in Iraq to help maintain the “fragile peace” in that country. Brig. Gen. LaWarren V. Patterson, USA, deputy commander, Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Signal Command, revealed that at least in some sense his service is addressing this issue by reviewing and overhauling its doctrine on how it buys information technology.


The Honorable Michael Chertoff is the chairman and managing principal, the Chertoff Group, and the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

During his speech at the Tuesday luncheon, the Honorable Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, proposed that it is strategic convergence that will distinguish the 21st century from the 20th century. Using a binary system as an analogy, Chertoff spoke about the differences between both the threats the United States faces today and the solutions it has at its fingertips.

The most obvious example is the change from facing a single adversary to an enemy that is diverse yet networked. “When I look at our adversaries around the world, what I see is that we can no longer kid ourselves into believing that we face challenges that will be easily boxed based on regions and categories. We have got to tear the categories down and recognize that every threat we face can appear simultaneously as a military threat, a terrorism threat, a criminal threat and a community threat that directly impacts our civilian governments,” he stated.

But the analogy can be extended to the difference between how the U.S. military operated in the past and conducts operations today. The focus is no longer on single weapons systems but rather on communications systems that enable the U.S. armed forces not only to operate better with each other but also to coordinate with coalition partners, Chertoff said.


Adm. Thad W. Allen, USCG, is the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

During Wednesday’s keynote address, Adm. Thad W. Allen, USCG, commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, proposed that today’s social media tools present the opportunity to address both budget constraints and the need for constant communications. “We have to understand that the changes in technology, computation and so forth have created what I call a fundamental change in our social atmosphere.... I have said on many occasions that this is not just a change in technology; this is not a new product line; this is not a new way of marketing technology. This is a fundamental change in our social atmosphere that is as fundamental as climate change is to our environment,” Adm. Allen said.

Military leaders must adapt and understand social media so they can assess both the risks and the opportunities they present, he added. “You have to proactively make information available to your people. The more you can make information transparent, the more you’re going to breed self-correcting behavior into your organizations,” Adm. Allen stated.

Information sharing also was the topic of discussion of panelists talking about network centricity and coalitions. With the shift to operations in Afghanistan, the importance of the International Security Assurance Force is resurging. Leaders from this organization, as well as industry representatives who are making communications in Afghanistan easier, explained the challenges they have faced and how they are addressing them.

For example, the French Thales Group has been instrumental in ensuring that multinational troops can communicate with each other over the vast and complicated terrain in Afghanistan. The company has had more than 150 of its employees working in the country to install the Full Operational Capability Plus (FOC+) system. In merely 90 days, the FOC+ went from contract award to the field and is now the communications backbone in Afghanistan. The system provides videoconferencing, voice over Internet protocol, data, e-mail, Web and full-motion video access with 99.8 percent service availability.


Tony Montemarano is the component acquisition executive for the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Tony Montemarano, component acquisition executive, Defense Information Systems Agency, passionately explained how important convergence has become to his organization specifically and to the U.S. military overall. At the time of the conference, the agency was in the midst of final modifications to a new campaign plan in which the word convergence is used repeatedly, he said. The plan comprises three lines of operations: enterprise infrastructure, command and control, and information sharing, he revealed.

Montemarano agrees with many others that technology is not standing in the way of true convergence. Instead, it is the culture of the enormous number of organizations that must communicate and share information that is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It is imperative that top-level leaders in every organization accept change and ensure that their personnel integrate change into the way they work and the way they conduct business, he said.

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