Origin of Network-centric Warfare

If you’re like me, you may have thought that the US Military adopted network-centric warfare in the current conflicts, so it could leverage its technological advantage.  This widespread application of information technology as a unifying doctrine for warfighting was the culmination of a debate that began in January 1998, when the journal Proceedings published “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future” by Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka.

If the only thing you ever read was General McChrystal’s It Takes a Network, published in Foreign Policy, you might think that the commanders in theater adopted network-centric warfare—not because of years-long deliberation within the DoD— but because al-Qaeda, adopted it first.

General McChrystal describes the enemy as being able to “… leverage sophisticated technology that connects remote valleys and severe mountains instantaneously — and allows them to project their message worldwide, unhindered by time or filters. They are both deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s complex society and impressively agile. And just like their allies in al Qaeda, this new Taliban is more network than army, more a community of interest than a corporate structure.”

Early in his command in Iraq, McChrystal drew a diagram illustrating the bottleneck that prevented the free flow of data among the highly compartmentalized structures of U.S. forces.  This bottleneck contrasted greatly with the al Qaeda’s easy exchange of information, which enabled it to maintain a lateral structure, quick adoption of successful tactics, and independent operations.

“The sketch from that evening — early in a war against an enemy that would only grow more complex, capable, and vicious — was the first step in what became one of the central missions in our effort: building the network. What was hazy then soon became our mantra: It takes a network to defeat a network.”

This is an inspiring story, depicting the flexibility and ingenuity of our military determined to complete its mission under difficult circumstances. McChrystal’s article is well-written and I strongly recommend it.

However, it is not correct to say the U.S. network-centric warfare efforts began with McChrystal’s diagram.   Award-wining Noah Shachtman writing in “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic” for Wired.com, reports that the principles of network-centric warfare were adopted and applied as early as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In fact, they worked pretty well —during the invasion.  The problems occurred during the occupation and rebuilding.

Shachtman writes “… Cebrowski and Garstka weren’t really writing about network-centric warfare at all. They were writing about a single, network-enabled process: killing.”  In counter-insurgency, killing is not the same thing as warfare.  So, the DoD’s application of network-enabled killing was great for using Special Operation teams to target and eventually destroy SCUD missiles. Not so great for nation building.

Under McChrystal and Petraeus’ leadership, the U.S. led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan altered their internal social culture about intelligence distribution as well as built social networks with the locals. Shachtman is persuasive that the social networks with the inhabitants are more significant than electronic. Even Garstka admitted to Shachtman, “You have your social networks and technological networks. You need to have both.”

Just as McChrystal did, we need to change our attitudes in order to properly exploit the advantages of networks. This applies not only to the military, but to the community supplying them.  Contractors and sub-contractors need to overcome their traditional hostility with competitors and network with each other in order provide the best-possible solutions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue of interoperability, which is essential for true network-centric warfare.

Connecting “The Last Tactical Mile” with Mature Technology

In a recent posting (Network-centric Warfare: Dead or Alive ?), I wrote about the debate concerning network-centric warfare.  In the wake of the “reorganization” and outright elimination of high-profile initiatives and programs associated with network-centric warfare, Defense vendors are anxiously wondering if it LTM 1will persist as a central doctrine for transforming the military.

Clearly, the military’s obsession with connectivity is far from over.  DARPA is actively working to overcome the military’s traditional anxiety about the security of distributed servers (Pentagon Looks to Militarize the Cloud).  The Army is running a contest for mobile applications and talking about issuing smartphones to every soldier (A Smart Phone for Every Soldier?). Solutions are being displayed for sticking 3G cellular pods on a variety of vehicles, including UAVs (Forward Airborne Secure Transmissions and Communications). 

So the forces that spawned network-centric warfare are still active, but as I concluded in the above-referenced blog post, so are the problems that have frustrated its implementation. Here’s a partial list of obstacles

  1. Money
  2. Lack of interoperability
  3. Money
  4. Development and acquisition pipeline logjam
  5. Money

According to at least one analysis, the current cost-climate climate means “… that the personnel and procurement budgets will be reduced to pay for O&M costs…” (Defense Industry Daily). As the demand for novel technology grows, acquisition budgets shrink.  Defense wants the latest and greatest solutions, they want them now, and they want them to have a TRL level of 9 before they even see them. Government paying for research, testing, validation and verification?  That’s so 20th century.

      Using mature systems to develop advanced, useful solutions for today’s challenges is not impossible.  Working with strategic partners, AMREL has developed System One, a Last Tactical Mile solution, a system composed of entirely battle-proven technology.

      “The Last Tactical Mile” is a classic problem of network-centric warfare. Front-line troops are demanding real-time information. The days are over when data for C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) only went to the “back-end” (headquarters located away from the front).  However, getting this information into hands of the warfighter is a tremendous problem.

      To appreciate the complexities of “The Last Tactical Mile,” imagine a team of Marines attacking a high value target in littoral waters. They might be deployed on an amphibious assault vehicle (whatever replaces the now-canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle).  In theory, this scenario could require connectivity among a UAV, external ship sensors, satellite networks, the amphibious assault vehicle, mother ship personnel, and the strike team deployed.  Space is limited aboard the ships and all equipment must be ruggedized in order to withstand the harsh maritime and combat environments.

      System One leverages AMREL’s broad range of from-factors for mature computing platforms, which are more than rugged enough to withstand the brutal vibrations of the high-speed landing craft,  the corrosive conditions of the sea, as well as the violent realities of warfighting.  AMREL’s durable, battle-tested PDAs are ideal for the Marine strike team.  AMREL’s portable, rugged tablets could maintain communication with the amphibious assault vehicle’s coxswain as well as the mother ship’s onboard crew. Our fully functional 19/2® servers are1/4 the size of normal rack-mounted units, so they’re perfect for the cramped quarters of the assault vehicle. Designed to be flexible and to maximize connectivity, AMREL’s computers would have no problem tying the whole thing together with a MESH network.

      System One has already successfully demonstrated the connectivity and reliability required for such a scenario. It can be installed on any vehicle, land or sea. It would function perfectly in the high-speed Stiletto boat and is small enough to fit in even the most crowded MRAP vehicle. In fact, it’s so compact, it is even man-portable.

      An example of an advanced solution using mature, field-tested components, System One demonstrates that with careful strategic teaming and a bit of imagination, diminished government resources for research and testing can be leveraged into an opportunity.

      For a more detailed discussion of “The Last Tactical Mile” and System One, please see IDGA’s interview with Luke McKinney, an expert in military intelligence operations and joint mission analysis.

      Beyond the tweak: End-user communication solutions

      Many people regard “end-user input” as something that happens at the end of a development process. However, the role of social media in the recent unrest in Middle East reminds us that end-users can be used for more than just “tweaking” solutions prepared by professionals.  Faced with government cut-off of networking services, organizers are finding ingenious ways of using communication platforms. More and more, “ordinary people” are demonstrating creativity in all stages of the solution-development process.

      Numerous examples of end-user resourcefulness are detailed in the Economist’s “Not just talk.” In developing countries, a cell-phone may be the only available computer, so people make the most of it.  Farmers look for the best market prices, consumers track fake drugs, students take English lessons, and the unemployed look for work.

      Cell-phones, especially smart phones, have also attracted the attention of the Defense establishment. While there has been formal research of smart phone applications, (The War App: Smart Phones Could Control Drone Camera discusses one of many efforts), the Defense community is also turning to end-users as a source of development.

      As reported in by IStrategyLabs in “Apps for the Army Winners – Doubling Our Expectations,” a contest open to soldiers and civilians employed by the US Army resulted in many useful mobile and web applications.  The success of this competition defied skepticism that said:

      “ · The Army is too big and slow to do something like this

      · Soldiers don’t know how to code

      · Soldiers don’t know anything about security

      · The apps will be low quality – leave the development to the pros

      · The process will kill any excitement in the program”

      In fact, “This program has taken the software development life-cycle down from an average of more than 1 year to roughly 90 days.  Soldiers are now empowered and incentivized to build solutions to their own problems rather than rely on outside actors to big them the tools they need.”

      The imagination of soldiers extends beyond communication solutions. Reputedly, the first armed robot used in theater was an ordinary IED-hunting Unmanned Ground Vehicle that had been jerry-rigged with weaponry by forward-placed soldiers. In NDIA’s  ‘Robot Army’ in Afghanistan Surges Past 2,000 Units,  Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, Project Manager for the Joint Project Office for Robotics systems (JPRO), indicated that soldiers are maintaining their inventiveness, “They are using them in ways we never expected.”

      Early input by end-users accelerates the development process and improves the quality for the delivered solution. AMREL is in the solutions business, so we constantly seek early input from end-users at the Robotics Rodeo, Tactical Network Topology (TNT) field experiments and other events.

      Afghan Mission Network: The Human Factor

      One of General Stanley McChrystal’s accomplishments as coalition commander in Afghanistan was the genesis of the Afghan Mission Network (AMN),a meshing of the communication links and data feeds used by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  The numbers are daunting. 50,000 users from 40 countries of the ISF use something like 30 separate networks, including United Kingdom’s Overtask, Canada’s Land Command Support System, and the American Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET). At least 165 applications (including 13 from NATO) and the data that populated those applications were moved from national networks to the shared one.

      However, as Wired reported, McChrystal thinks the technical problems of net-centric warfare are relatively minor compared to the human factors. In a speech to the Network-Centric Warfare conference, McChrystal said that “by far the hardest part” was creating the appropriate “culture.”

      The failure to alter our “culture” about intelligence and communications has led not only to dangerous situations, but absurd ones as well. By law, SIPRNET is only available to US armed forces. As a result, two-star British general Nick Carter, commander of Regional Command–South was unable to access information that was available to thousands of the American troops under his authority.  Even McChrystal had trouble getting critical data from intelligence agencies.

      SIPRNET will not be replaced by AMN. Instead, AMN will create a Common Operational Picture (COP) for joint warfighting missions such as battlespace management, fires, ISR, counter-IED and force protection.  NATO C3 Agency project manager Wilco Dissevelt told Digital-Battlespace  “…NATO will use one tool and the US will use another tool, but they will be able to see the same information on both. Our job is to ensure that the green dot means the same thing on both systems.”

      The COP approach begs the question: what kind of change is the AMN? Is it an automobile or a computer?  When cars first replaced horses, designers were reluctant to give up centuries old customs.  As a result, some early cars reputedly had holders for buggy whips. On the other hand, computers were supposed to usher in the age of the “paperless” office, a phenomenon that is still rare, if not totally non-existent.  If the AMN presents an identical COP as SIPRNET, wouldn’t that make SIPRNET as anachronistic as buggy whips? If SIPRNET still has unique applications and information, is the Common Operating Picture truly all that common?  Maybe, even with a true COP, SIPRNET will still have uses, as paper still does in a modern office.

      The cultural issues surrounding AMN highlight not only the human factors, but the importance of the humans themselves.  Personnel who collect intelligence and relay communications can no longer be considered secondary actors in this conflict.  Their actions have profound effects at virtually every strategic and tactical level. As Brig. Gen. Brian Donahue, director of command, control, computers and communications systems at the Army’s Central Command told Signal magazine, “If you think a signal commander or signal officer is not a warfighter, you’ve never been to Afghanistan.”

      Multinational Tactical Communications

      One of the big challenges facing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is that radio systems from different countries don’t communicate with each another. Coordinating disparate radio systems in joint international operations will be a major focus of the Tactical Communications Conference, which will take place in April in London.

      Defense IQ.com has a brief interview with one of the conference’s featured speakers, Dr. Vigneron, who is the Canadian Representative to the VHF/UHF Waveform Standardization Group at NATO.  The interview gives us a brief taste of his presentation.

      Anyone familiar with this field knows that one of biggest headaches is integration of old legacy systems. Dr. Vigneron reports that there will be a “long transition period,” since many of the older systems are broadcast-oriented and not true networks. Dr. Vigneron specifically cites slow switching as a characteristic problem.

      Then there’s the sensitive question of national sovereignty versus international needs. Dr. Vigneron estimates that any given national system will be using multinational waveforms 10-20% of the time.  Of course, individual countries have the option of adopting the multinational standard, which most European nations have done for air-to-air and air-to-ground systems.

      From Dr. Vigneron’s interview, one gathers many of the problems will be institutional rather than technical.  NATO will set the multinational standards for its members, but how will compliance be enforced?  Which legacy systems will be retrofitted and which will be replaced?  How will crypto functions be shared among sovereign nations? Will the richer countries’ desire to upgrade standards be hampered by the poorer nations’ lack of resources?

      Hear Dr. Vigneron opinions on the challenges of integrating tactical communication systems across national borders by clicking here.

      Does your rugged computer need legacy Wi-Fi?

      Some computer manufacturers are eliminating IEEE 802.11b protocols, claiming that it will improve 802.11g.  Since 802.11n is the fastest WLAN standard, why have any legacy Wi-Fi at all?

      You need a, b, and g, because not all hot spots are running n. For example, if you’re operating an MQ-1 Predator by a wireless control system, while sipping a Frappuccino at Starbuck’s (you have your fantasies; I have mine), your computer better accommodate legacy Wi-Fi networks.  If you know that your computer will be solely dedicated to a network that only supports 802.11n, then you don’t need connectivity for the older standards.

      By the way, when you use your computer to conduct major combat operations from the local coffee house, be careful where you sit; data throughput dramatically decreases the further away you sit from an access point.