Information Technology Takes Firm Hold of Military's Reins

May 2005
By Robert K.Ackerman

A U.S. Marine F/A-18 Hornet catapults from the deck of the USS Harry S Truman in support of ongoing operations in Iraq. The office of the J-6, the Joint Staff, gives top priority to support of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The list of requirements is long and the margin for error is small in wartime.

Force transformation and ongoing military operations are both complementing and competing for new information technology system development. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are validating many concepts and technologies, but requirements emerging from those fronts threaten to derail intricate long-term plans for modernizing the force across network-centric lines.

At the heart of the force transformation is the network-centric battlespace, and at the heart of network centricity is interoperability. Whether evolutionary or revolutionary, the elimination of stovepipe systems is a cornerstone of the U.S. Defense Department’s long-term plans for an overarching battlespace network. The department now must balance that mission with urgent requests from the battlefield that may entail maintaining stovepipes or even creating new ones.

And, above all, the Defense Department must stick to its long-term strategy for fielding various new capabilities evenly throughout the force. Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC, director of command, control, communications and computers (C4), J-6, the Joint Staff, calls this the top obstacle to be surmounted in building a fully network-centric force. “The biggest challenge is to look across the various programs out there and to field them in as close to a synchronized manner as possible so that you are delivering capabilities,” he charges.

But that is far from the only challenge facing the Defense Department as it builds the network amid diverse needs and stovepipe requirements. “Number two is to determine whether the 85-percent solution is good enough across the spectrum of people we have to deal with,” Gen. Shea offers. “The threshold ought to be good enough, and [the challenge] is defining what that threshold is so that we will get common agreement—among the services and the agencies and all the stakeholders—that we can move forward and spiral toward the objective.

“We are doing a pretty good job; it’s getting rid of these little barbs that are out there—these little unique things that people claim to have that may slow things down, that are nice, but not critical,” he adds. The J-6 wants to move forward with the core modernization program and then spiral to small individual capabilities if they are needed.

Those small needs are emerging in greater numbers as U.S. forces deal with asymmetric threats in the war on terror. The ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan actually may be slowing down some of the information-technology aspects of transformation, Gen. Shea offers. Balancing the operational side and the programmatical side has caused some items to be delayed or even deferred. However, the conflicts also are providing an opportunity to view the future. Many advances that have entered the force would not have been fielded but for warfighter needs. Some of the capabilities that have been deployed in the war are providing invaluable insight on improving both the deployed capabilities and other systems in the pipeline.

“Our troops, the civilian government employees and the contractors who are supporting us in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing an absolutely magnificent job,” Gen. Shea declares. “In many cases, they are doing that despite the fact that they don’t have the tools that they ought to have to do those jobs.”

Among these needed tools are better training, spectrum management, crypto key management and network vulnerability detection and repair. Other vital technologies must emerge from the private sector to address immediate and long-term requirements.

Supporting those personnel in the war zones is challenging enough, but the task is compounded by the problem of concurrently equipping the overseas force and maintaining long-term programs. These two missions can conflict when fulfilling a battlefield need runs counter to a long-term solution in the pipeline. Gen. Shea declares that support for current operations always will be the overwhelming concern for the   J-6. “We will do whatever we need to do to support the troops and our commanders in the field. If that means we have to defer some upgrades or take some manageable risk from a fielding-strategy perspective, then the default always will be to support the commanders and the troops,” he warrants.

“When [the warfighters] request a capability that should be fielded and will not cause interoperability or stovepipe problems, then we bless it and move forward,” the general says. “If there are going to be some challenges from an interoperability perspective, then we bring it into the Joint Capability Integration Development System process.” The Functional Capabilities Board, which is chaired by the J-6, has the authority to review a program before representatives of all services, the combatant commands and the Office of the Secretary of Defense staff. This board vets the program’s issues for passage or veto.

“This is a process to allow us to vet emergent requirements that may in fact be stovepipe solutions and to weigh the risk of that versus the capability that the commander needs,” he explains. If a potential stovepipe program is approved, the implementer should present a convergent strategy back to the mainstream.

Gen. Shea lists several areas that he describes either as challenges or as needing greater attention. One of these is network configuration management. The general is calling for building a standard set of capabilities that are designed to work together instead of assembling off-the-shelf equipment that is not designed to interoperate fully. “It is important, as we move into this network-centric world, that we put out a capability that was intended to work together. Otherwise, we are not going to get the quality of service that we need to the users on the edge of the network,” he emphasizes, adding, “We have not done a very good job of that to this point in time.” Part of the solution may be to incorporate more discipline into the configuration management process, he notes.

Another key focus area is the ability to manage the network. With the department assembling a network being made up of many diverse systems, the ability to manage and control the network is as complicated as its components. Operators must understand what is happening in the network to control it, and this ability often is lost at the tactical level. This is tied to configuration management, Gen. Shea observes. “Network management gives us visibility into the interconnections between the various communication systems, information systems and security systems that make up the network. This allows us to optimize the network for any given situation that we might be in,” he explains.

This critical aspect touches on the difference between military networks and their commercial counterparts. Gen. Shea points out that commercial networks tend to have a fixed backbone, but military networks cannot afford that luxury. Their backbones are constantly moving and must be mobile to meet the needs of the 21st century military force.

Training is another issue requiring attention. The general offers that the services tend to train their own information technology professionals well within each service, but the focus must shift to the joint perspective. The U.S. Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, Georgia, is developing a joint C4 planners’ course to train experts across all the services in installation, operation and maintenance of a joint network. Concurrently, the Joint Forces Command in Virginia is examining joint training standards.

Above all comes network protection. “As we move into this network-centric world, the protection of the network really is our Achilles’ heel,” Gen. Shea declares, adding that the department must examine how it trains its professionals as well as the tools with which it equips them.

Defending the network entails more than training and technology, however. Network protection also involves physical security, the general points out. “It does not do any good to have a network full of protective mechanisms, and then you leave the door to the building or the tent open for an intruder to enter and interrupt or access the information going across the network,” he says. Ensuring network security on all fronts will require improvements in tactics, techniques and procedures in both the technical and the physical realms.

Commanders must understand that they are responsible for what goes on in their networks, the general imparts. Just as a battlefield commander is responsible for care and upkeep of vehicles and weapons, so too must the commander assume responsibility for the network. Concurrently, the department must provide commanders with the necessary tools and training so they can protect the network properly, Gen. Shea adds.

U.S. soldiers deploy a remote-controlled robot to detonate a possible improvised explosive device in Iskandariyah, Iraq. Robots will increase in numbers and capabilities as the battlespace becomes more network-centric.
One important point is whether the military needs to place the same level of security on perishable information as it does on data at the Joint Task Force headquarters. For example, a squad on patrol in an urban environment may be using information that does not have the long-term ramifications as would the headquarters information. That patrol’s information may need only a lesser, but protective, standard with an acceptable level of risk.

Gen. Shea cautions that, in the networked world, not all of the lower level information may be perishable. As the force becomes more infocentric, data will increase in value as it is combined with other information. A small event in the tactical arena may turn out to have strategic implications.

The solution may not be a technological one. “Technology does not need to be the total answer,” the general suggests. “It could be tactics, techniques and procedures that will supplement technology. We constantly are trying to find the right blend. There is no silver bullet out there at this point in time.”

The security issue also encompasses coalition operations. “We are no longer fighting wars by ourselves,” the general states, “The roles played by multinational partners—both operationally and strategically—are vital to determining how future operations will be run. So, the United States must develop a good way of sharing information across the multiple security domains that will characterize a combat operation. A program run by the U.S. Navy, known as multinational information sharing, aims to combine disparate efforts into a single program that addresses joint and coalition information-sharing issues.

None of these efforts will work without better frequency spectrum management. Describing it as “one of the least understood challenges that we face,” Gen. Shea offers that the military is seeing only the tip of its iceberg today. Beneath the surface lurk many related challenges that must be addressed for the future. For example, the proliferation of commercial devices and the increase in wireless links among battlefield equipment and individual personnel are crowding the spectrum with signal emissions. In many cases, the military is competing for spectrum with commercial applications. The military must have a better understanding of the operational impacts wrought by frequency spectrum allocation.

A U.S. or coalition force entering a distant theater may find that its radio equipment clashes with that country’s commercial wireless communications system. This could have deleterious effects if that national system is needed to support U.S. operations. Or, in a peacekeeping or emergency relief mission, the host nation’s emergency responder system may operate on the same frequency as a key military system, and using the military system might render the civil emergency system useless—which would not serve the cause of peacekeeping or emergency relief very well. This is a huge issue, Gen. Shea says, because frequency spectrum is a sovereign resource of each individual country. Just because the United States has a radio frequency emitter that works unhindered in most places does not mean that will be the case everywhere that U.S. forces may need to operate.

Bandwidth remains an issue. The general offers that the military must focus on using available bandwidth efficiently and effectively. For example, instead of sending a full image down the network, a more efficient manner would be to send an update that carries only data indicating changes in that image.

As with any military operation, timing is vital. Gen. Shea reiterates that the department must synchronize the fielding of its various network capabilities across the services. In this era of joint operations, the military cannot obtain the full benefit of network-centric operations if one service is far ahead of or behind the other services. “The potential of the network-centric world will drive us away from stovepipes,” he maintains, “but to do that, we must be careful that the different capabilities that we are fielding are fielded in a synchronized manner.” These capabilities include the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), the Transformational Satellite program (TSAT), other transmission media and the network management tools.

“We have to get everyone up to the line of scrimmage at about the same pace,” he emphasizes.

“As we are moving into this network world, we have a tactical solution. There are some gaps in that solution that we are working on. The GIG [Global Information Grid], TSAT, JTRS, GIG-BE [Bandwidth Expansion] and several other programs are underway. We must begin operationalizing this network. We must ensure that the capability that we are building out there is the capability that will support the operational concepts that are being developed. We think it is, but we need to put some more rigor into this network that we are building and see if it does stand up to the test from the operational and tactical perspective.”

This can be determined through exercises such as modeling and simulation and wargaming. Gen. Shea’s office is working with the J-7 and others active in that arena to increase those efforts to test the network.

JTRS is the most transformational program, the general warrants. This system opens the door to joint networking, and it “really becomes the driver” for transforming the joint force, he says.

Several information technologies loom as vitally important to the network. At the top of Gen. Shea’s list is the development of multilevel security capabilities that will permit the exchange of information between various secure levels within joint and coalition forces. User identity management technologies also are high on the list.

Another key will be information and knowledge management technologies that support battlefield command and control systems. For network management, the department needs tools that will allow personnel to monitor the entire network, if required. Gen. Shea also emphasizes the need for ad hoc network management tools to serve the continually moving network backbone. The military requires tools that are specifically geared to the ad hoc networking that defines military network requirements.

Modeling and simulation tools can help design or start a network in the right perspective, the general offers. These tools can help judge the effects of different operations on the network. Experts would be able to determine whether information can be moved effectively and if quality of service can be maintained.

Military forces will need advanced antenna technologies that will allow them to use the smallest antennas possible without sacrificing efficiency, Gen. Shea continues. The military also needs antennas that will operate across the broad range of frequencies now being exploited throughout the battlespace.

Battery technology is another vital area. Describing this as “an anchor” for the communicator, the general cited a need for lightweight batteries with long life and reusability.

Commercial technologies continue to enter the battlespace. The department is “making tremendous use” of commercial off-the-shelf tools for protecting and managing its networks, Gen. Shea says. Other capabilities such as wireless have become more than just a niche in military operations. They have become a great supplement to the tactical and operational systems that the services have developed over the years, the general notes.

However, some commercial goods and services are over-relied on, Gen. Shea suggests. In satellite communications, for example, 80 percent of the assets used by the military in the 1991 Gulf War were government-owned. In the most recent Iraq war, that balance flipped to about 20 percent government-owned and 80 percent commercial satellite links, the general relates. That strong reliance on commercial assets is not the wave of the future, however, as Gen. Shea describes this balance as “out of whack” and something that must be fixed. Programs currently in the budget should rectify that mismatch and help the department achieve the correct balance between military and commercial satellite communications, he offers.

UHF satellite communications coupled with the Iridium satellite telephone system proved invaluable to many types of U.S. forces in Southwest Asia. The department must make sure that the follow-on to those two technologies stays funded and on track, Gen. Shea posits.


Web Resources
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