Retaking Command and Control

April 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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A Lithuanian army captain monitors activity during a coalition exercise in Germany. New steps being taken by the U.S. Defense Department aim to change the shape of command and control, and a key result would be better interoperability among U.S. and coalition partners.

Technology now is liberating commanders from technology.

Now that information systems have redefined how a military leader exercises command and control, they are being retasked to free that leader from constraints imposed in the process of innovation and revolution. The technology revolution has been established; now the cultural struggle is underway.

This entails changing the nature of networking. Data will be decoupled from the network, which will enable smoother access to information amid improved security. Coalition operations will be enhanced with more partners being able to access a greater amount of vital information with less threat of security breaches. And, this new approach to command and control (C2) already is returning the human to being in command of the process, instead of the other way around.

“Command is ultimately a human endeavor that is enabled by technology,” declares Ronald Pontius, director of C2 in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “While we have advanced concepts and technologies associated with our net-centric elements that we developed over the past decade … what we see now is unprecedented situational awareness and timely collaboration.”

Pontius continues that the department’s efforts in C2 capability still are guided by the principle that technology supports the decision maker rather than forces the decision maker to operate within the constraints of the technology. This represents a shift from a decade ago, when technology itself defined the C2 process.

He notes that, in the past, the department had developed many systems in which their technologies defined C2 processes. “Historically, the process, the elements and the command aspect really have been defined by what the technology enabled us to do,” Pontius elaborates. “Where we have been moving to for several years now is to the technologies that are supporting and enabling—not defining—the processes.”

He adds that this move can be unsettling to some people, as technology can open up entire new ways of operating that were not envisioned by developers. New methods of accessing information may empower users to new actions. Elements such as smartphones, applications and access to data outside of systems are enabling a greater situational awareness, which in turn allows better C2 of disparate distributed forces.

Pontius continues that 10 years of combat operations and nation building have emphasized how important the commander’s activities are at all levels. “It is amazing what users can do if they have the right kind of access-supporting things, as opposed to the technology defining what they can do and how they can do it,” he declares.

Teri Takai, Defense Department chief information officer, states that several efforts are underway to improve information-technology-based C2 capabilities. Many of these involve standardizing either technologies or capabilities—or, in some cases, both.

“The department is committed to improving the effectiveness of information-technology-based solutions that provide commanders and senior leaders the capabilities they require to exercise C2 across the joint information enterprise,” she declares.

Many government organizations—especially those in the defense arena—are addressing severe budget constraints by seeking to “strike a balance between sustainment and modernization,” and the C2 arena is no exception. Takai emphasizes that the department will rationalize requirements in its efforts to improve C2 governance and management. She cites dedicated systems engineering, reference architectures and common standards applicable across the C2 capability set as the basis for better C2 capabilities.

Pontius offers that the C2 capabilities that will continue to emerge over the next few years reflect the ongoing paradigm shift from the traditional centralized C2 to one that emphasizes the distributed, collaborative, cooperative and net-enabled environment. This environment includes attributes such as agility, interoperability, understanding, timeliness, accessibility, accuracy and operational trust.

“We have a whole new generation of soldiers and junior leaders who are accustomed to having near-real-time information access, instant communications, text messaging, information visualization and instant situational awareness,” he says. “In many ways, our junior leaders expect the same sort of capabilities to be in their professional military life. In many ways, they really get it about how that information technology enables them.”

Takai cites agility in particular as a vital attribute. She relates that the department is increasing its emphasis on agile enterprise-based C2 services to address many issues, such as interoperability, data access and configuration management. Agility will increase the military’s ability to respond to the dynamic mission environment that it faces. And, it will help standardize and economize C2 activities.

“This enterprise-based approach also will enable re-use of C2 services across the department and reduce unnecessary duplication,” she allows.

Takai indicates that the department is going to adopt common and mission-tailorable C2 capabilities that are accessible to all authorized users. These capabilities will consist of a collection of apps and widgets that will be pooled for efficient access.

A cornerstone of this access will be security. Takai affirms that the department is increasing its emphasis on cyber security. Among other reasons, this is necessary so that the military can have seamless access to information regardless of device or location, she allows.

Pontius echoes her concern about security in the C2 realm. “On the one hand, we have a tremendous technological advantage; but, we also have a huge dependency on the technology,” he says. “So, the cyber aspect is about, ‘Can I really trust who the users are; can I trust the data; can I trust what I’m seeing from my C2 and ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems?’ If we start questioning what our systems are telling us, then that changes that whole dynamic.” Cyber is more than just a network piece, he says. “It really is about our capabilities.”

He cites three technology aspects that must be emphasized. First, the force must be able to trust the user. Amid the shift from “need to know” to “need to share,” the network must be able to authenticate and trust its authorized users—regardless of whether a user is a person, an organization or a device. Identity and access management is critical, and the department now is making progress in that area. This progress should become apparent in the next couple of years, he adds.

Pontius cautions that, while technology will enable achieving this goal, its discussion will focus largely on policy and process. This includes identification attributes and their establishment and enforcement.

Another aspect involves trusting the data. Authorized and authenticated users should be able to use data however they deem necessary, as opposed to how the systems have dictated how that securely tagged and exposed data could be exploited.

The third aspect involves cross-domain solutions, and Takai emphasizes that requirement among related needs. She says that machine-to-machine, peer-to-peer, cross-domain interoperable solutions are needed along with access to multisource data and information. This is part of the department’s increased emphasis on data and interoperability.

One major C2 change brought about by the ready access to information is the time frame in which commanders and staff must operate, Pontius points out. He adds that information operations aspects also figure into that issue, as the force must be able to manage the message instead of being merely reactive. These are key tenets of effective C2.

“Our technology must enable the commander and the staff to have quick access to information to be inside their own planning cycle—and not let the opposing force get inside of their decision cycle to dictate how we should be planning operations,” he emphasizes.

Yet this approach brings its own challenges. These new technologies are threatening to disrupt traditional command flows and once again leave the user guided by the technology. Pontius notes that commanders at different levels must evolve to be aware of information without feeling like they should micromanage operations just because they have more direct access to them. That evolution is taking place on the battlefield today. “Some commanders are thinking, ‘This isn’t just about me because I’m the commander, and I shouldn’t be the hub of the information,’” he says.

Research over the past two years, including some with other NATO nations, has examined this challenge and its ramifications, he points out. Commanders must be able to maintain agility without micromanaging, especially without the traditional hierarchical command construct. “The commanders who are really embracing these types of technologies realize that command can be tremendously more effective if they are sharing information and it’s really a total team working it, as opposed to going through just the commander as the hub of that [information],” Pontius offers.

That C2 research with NATO is only a small part of the C2 work being conducted with U.S. allies. With future conflicts likely to involve coalition operations, ensuring effective C2 in a multinational environment is a major focus on Defense Department efforts.

Takai states that the department is moving toward improved coalition information-sharing capabilities “that enable both internal and external mission partners to conduct integrated operations across a wide range of missions or scenarios and at all echelons.” She adds that this information sharing would include applications and services that are tailorable to regional operations.

Pontius notes that this interoperability extends beyond military forces to include nongovernmental organizations, which also are likely partners in future operations. “It’s not just about red and blue forces; it’s also about white and gray forces—entities in the operational spaces or battlefields in which we work these days,” he says. The C2 technologies on which the department is working also will be critical for coalition operations, he adds.

The Afghan Mission Network is at the forefront of future coalition C2, Pontius continues. It also is an exemplar of the environment that C4ISR capabilities, doctrine, tactics, techniques, procedures and processes must support. “Coalition members are not as able to contribute to the operation if they are not on the same warfighting environment with the United States,” he points out.

The Joint Staff is working on developing a concept of operation and initial capabilities for the next step, the Future Mission Network. Pontius emphasizes that this effort is less about the network and more about who constitutes the network along with its applications, services and data—and how they are shared and accessed in a coalition environment. Building on the Afghan Mission Network, the Future Mission Network may evolve into the Future Mission Environment, he suggests.

The new defense strategy that places greater emphasis on cyber operations and networking is shifting some emphasis within those elements, Pontius offers. One aspect that is increasing in importance is C2 of C2. He explains that this emerging concept recognizes that the focus must be on more than just the networks—it also must be on data and services that are accessed through these networks. C2 of C2 takes on that larger aspect.

“This is about moving beyond the system-centric access where, in our past, the data has been buried in systems,” Pontius continues. As data is decoupled from the systems, then users will be able to access the data, the applications and the services in the network. This decoupling is especially important for bringing coalition partners into the C2 network, he adds. Applications can be shared more easily, and the data that is appropriate for that particular coalition environment is available.

With all these changes coming to the networked environment, the Defense Department does run the risk of ceding control of the system back to the technologies. Pontius offers that the department clearly understands the importance of it, but the possibility of this shift in technology prevalence does exist.

Issues may center on whether these new efforts are successful. “What does it mean if I can’t trust the data? What would it mean if I can’t trust what the systems are telling me? How would I operate; what would that mean?” he asks. “We really have to think through and not just blindly accept that what I see on my situational awareness displays … can be 100-percent trusted.

“This is an area that we’re really just starting to think about,” Pontius declares.

“It’s more than about the networks. It’s about the data, the applications, the services, the operations that we are doing. In many cases, the real challenges are to ensure that those data, applications and systems that can be accessed through networks are secure from a cyber perspective,” he warrants.


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