Joint Force Digital Interoperability Remains Elusive
A departmentwide approach is necessary to achieve the long-sought goal.
Despite substantial research and investments, widespread interoperability continues to elude the Defense Department, the joint force and their partners. Some of the hurdles are inherent in the current acquisition and budgeting process. Others loom because of long-standing approaches to operation and training. Progress has been made, but the goal has not yet been attained.
Ultimately, interoperability is not the responsibility of any one organization or community—it is a responsibility shared across almost all communities, including requirements, acquisition, testing and training. The joint force can achieve digital interoperability, but only if leadership recognizes its importance and demands it from every community and organization.
Almost three decades of Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports document the interoperability challenge and its impact on mission performance. In 1986, Richard Davis of the GAO stated, “[The Defense Department’s] inability to achieve interoperability is primarily related to its decentralized management structure, which permits each service a large degree of autonomy over its programs.” This is as true today as it was 28 years ago, because no single organization is responsible for defining and funding joint and coalition interoperability requirements.
When the responsibility for solving and funding interoperability is shared across a multitude of stakeholders with competing goals and objectives, achieving and maintaining interoperability becomes a significant challenge. Because current Defense Department acquisition and budgeting processes are program-centric by statute, program managers often are fiscally constrained to addressing their individual program’s immediate interoperability requirements. As a result, they coordinate point-to-point digital communication solutions with other programs rather than coordinating with a broader, multiprogram, multinational partnership to design a system of systems (SoS) solution that would provide more comprehensive benefits to the end users.
Today, the United States rarely fights as a single nation. More often the military operates side by side with mission partners, which drives these partners to design systems that are interoperable with U.S. counterparts. Coalition interoperability requirements are addressed only within the context of open foreign military sales (FMS) cases, which does not reflect an SoS context nor accounts for U.S. interoperability with foreign systems that are not purchased from U.S. vendors. Additionally, in today’s fiscally constrained environment, when a program actually identifies and documents broad joint and coalition interoperability requirements, these often fall below the cut line or funding threshold during prioritization.
Even when interoperability requirements and funding are in place, the Defense Department faces the very difficult challenge of synchronizing life cycles. Multiple systems that are expected to operate as an SoS to provide a capability or execute a mission all have independent program and upgrade timelines. True interoperability requires a constant effort to integrate new, emerging technologies into networks with existing legacy communications and systems. Often when a new version of a system is fielded, interoperability across the entire SoS becomes degraded or broken. This is complicated further when the multiple systems span different domains—such as air-ground or land-maritime—because this normally involves gateways between networks that are optimized for use in single domains.
If Moore’s Law holds true into the future, and significant technology advancements are realized every two years, this evolution is disconnected significantly from the typical air or maritime platform upgrade life cycle of only every four to eight years. The potential result is a missed opportunity to move the most capable technologies into the hands of the warfighter by failing to leverage the natural cycle of technological advances.
Several processes, tools and mandated policies within the Defense Department aim to promote and improve interoperability. These include requirements validation, standards compliance and interoperability certification.
With requirements validation, all aspects of system development—including funding, schedule, design, fielding and training—are driven by validated requirements. So, interoperability relies on effective requirements definitions. However, most requirements documents are program-centric and focus on individual service context with little consideration or funding for the joint and coalition operational environments in which the solution will likely be used. Leadership must encourage requirements officers to consider not only their own service operational and doctrinal processes but also the implications of joint and coalition doctrinal processes and operating environments.
In standards compliance, the use of military and industry standards—versus proprietary interfaces—is mandatory for digital interoperability. The Defense Department Information Technology Standards and Profile Registry (DISR) provides a list of current approved standards for the department. However, standards provide only a point of departure for interoperability. Compliance with a standard does not always ensure interoperability, because two systems independently can be certified as compliant with the same standard but not be interoperable because of varied implementation choices and optional features. Leadership must encourage system designers to ensure not only standards compliance but also that the choices and optional features implemented correspond with those of applicable joint and coalition systems.
For interoperability certification, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) 6212.01F, Net-Ready Key Performance Parameter (NR-KPP), defines a comprehensive approach to the acquisition of information technology systems to achieve interoperability. The majority of the instruction centers on required Department of Defense Architecture Framework (DoDAF) views and documentation of a program or system’s interfaces that must be accomplished to receive an NR-KPP certification. Additionally, the instruction requires the Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC) to conduct testing to validate that a program did implement what was documented.
However, this process, which provides programs autonomy to select standards implementation options independently, does not ensure digital interoperability. Leadership must ensure that interoperability certification takes into account the entire SoS context to be an accurate indicator of interoperability.
Requirements validation, standards compliance and NR-KPP documentation sometimes are considered a time sink for program managers rather than what they could be: a collective set of tools that, when applied together, can provide a rigorous methodology to identify interoperability problems at the beginning of a life cycle. If technical requirements, architectures and interoperability documentation are not completed until very late in the life-cycle development process, they do not serve their intended purposes.
So, in addition to changing the approach to existing processes, the Defense Department could emphasize three additional areas to improve interoperability further: SoS coordination; mission-based test and evaluation; and system training.
Using a common overarching SoS architecture to include joint and coalition environments can enable program representatives with knowledge of their individual system architectures—capabilities as well as limitations—and programmatics to collaborate and effectively design an end-to-end communications solution that maximizes emerging technologies while considering legacy constraints. Interoperability within an SoS always will be constrained by the least common denominator. For example, a program that cannot afford, or does not have room for, a new radio will not be able to migrate to the latest waveform. So, to maintain existing interoperability, the SoS is constrained to the existing waveform. This type of collaboration is as much a technical effort as a programmatic one. While contracting rules and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) can make SoS coordination difficult, if joint and coalition coordination is accounted for at the beginning of a life cycle rather than toward the end, then the benefits and return on investment will be significant.
The Defense Department has several successful examples of this type of coordination, such as the Air Operations Community of Interest (AO COI) and the Digitally Aided Close Air Support (DACAS) Working Group. However, these mission-focused efforts are the exception rather than the rule. Defense leadership must consider ways to incentivize services and programs to institutionalize mission-focused collaboration with joint and coalition partners.
In the current constrained fiscal environment, services and programs increasingly are forced to minimize their external coordination and focus only on meeting their internal requirements within schedule and budget. However, if interoperability is viewed through a departmentwide lens, then constrained fiscal times are exactly when leadership must encourage external coordination to reduce overall defense spending and maximize capability delivered to the warfighters.
For mission-based test and evaluation, interoperability testing should include opportunities for low-risk assessments in realistic joint and coalition environments throughout a program’s life cycle. Program managers (PMs) typically are risk-averse when it comes to test and evaluation; no one wants to fail a test. Therefore, assessments that include external participants often occur only after the PM has a very high confidence of meeting all measures.
SoS interoperability, however, is not the result of a single program’s performance and requires a different approach. Regularly scheduled, mission-based risk-reduction events—which are nonattributable—as well as mission-based interoperability test tools that assess the end-to-end interoperability, have proved to be very effective in achieving interoperability across an SoS. These events and tools provide programs with early feedback on their progress toward SoS interoperability at a point in the life cycle when it still is relatively inexpensive to make fixes or code changes. Leadership must encourage participation in low-risk interoperability assessment events and invest in test tools that are more comprehensive than current standards compliance tools.
System training is important because proficiency is gained through familiarization and training. The individuals joining the military today have grown up in the digital age and are comfortable using digital communications and technology. However, anecdotally, endless examples persist of fielded communications systems failing because of planning shortfalls or configuration errors. Providing operators with increased hands-on time during training and rehearsal to become proficient at the proper and intended usage of a system will reduce the number of operator errors experienced during operations. With the scheduled drawdown in overseas operations—as well as the widespread prevalence of fielded technology and digital communications—now is a perfect time for leadership to invest in increased system training.
Marsha Mullins is a systems engineer in the Joint Fires Division of the Joint Staff J-6 Deputy Directorate for C5 Integration.