Battlefield interoperability is here, sort of

soldier commFor decades, the American military has pursued the related goals of interoperable combat communications, netcentric warfare, and team/joint warfare. These Defense initiatives have been more noted for their challenges than their successes. In fact, problems facing true interoperability seemed so great that I had associated it with the drive for procurement reform, i.e. a good idea, but it ain’t going to happen.

A recent article about the Israel/Gaza war has caused me to revise my skepticism.  The IDF’s first fully digital war describes two incidents, which reveal the reality of interoperable communications.

The article contains a video (in Hebrew), which records the first incident.  Gunfire from an unknown origin has pinned down Israeli infantrymen in a building. A trapped Israeli soldier radios an airplane, and then asks the pilot if he can locate his adversaries.  The pilot calmly reassures the soldier that he sees the enemy, and will “destroy” them, which he does.

In a second incident, Navy radar detected the movements in water off the coast of Israel.  The Navy warned seaside military surveillance operators, one of whom spotted Hamas gunmen coming ashore. Video and relevant intelligence was distributed simultaneously both to ground and air forces, who successfully attacked the enemy.

These stories come from Israeli Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I), who boasted that the interconnectivity of their forces in Gaza is “unprecedented.” They describe how multiple sources feed video/intelligence to a central core, which then relays them to the appropriate commanders in the field.  If you have read about the doctrine of netcentric warfare or the drive toward interoperable communications, this should sound very familiar.

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The above referenced article was sent to me by someone who wanted to impress me with the technological awesomeness of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I was about to write her back an email, which essentially said, “Yes, the IDF is very advanced, but these capabilities are no big deal. This sort of thing has been going on for years.”

Before I hit the “sent” button, I reconsidered the message of my email.  I compared the Israeli infantryman’s experience with that of a soldier in the American invasion of Grenada during the early 80s. The American soldier placed a long distance, international, commercial phone call (a big deal in those days) to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in order to obtain C-130 gunship support for his unit, which was under fire. The call for support was relayed by satellite to the gunship, which did respond.  The soldier had to use a commercial telephone service in this roundabout manner, because, in spite of planning and promises, there was no interoperable communications between services.

The Israeli soldier had access to critical, direct inter-service communications that the earlier American soldier did not. The fact that I was not impressed by the Israeli stories is actually a sign of how far we have come.

I contacted Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development – DoD Programs for his expert opinion on the current state of interoperability. Had the future arrived, and I hadn’t noticed?

Robert confirmed my impression; the Israeli stories are mundane.  However, he warned that we haven’t reached interoperable utopia yet.  “The problem is not technological,” he said.

Consider the first story of the trapped Israeli infantryman. A “call for fire” is different for an air strike than it is for artillery or other ground support.  For one thing, the impact of an aerial strike would be greater. Has the infantryman been trained to know when an aerial strike is appropriate?  Has he mastered the jargon and rules of the Air Force?

 It is not practical for everyone in a military offensive to have open communications with everyone else; they would drown in a sea of confusing chatter.  Probably, the Israeli pilot was talking to a forward observer, who has been trained for this scenario, but how much training?  “You can practice with bullets every day. Planes, not so much,” said Robert.

What about the pilot?  Can he see what the infantryman did?  In this story, he was able to locate the building in which the Israelis were pinned down, but it may not be so easy in every instance.

Part of the controversy surrounding the plans to eliminate the beloved A-10 (Warthog) has to do with how the Air Force sees itself. A-10s fly low to the ground (Robert:”We can see them eyeball to eyeball”).  But the Air Force doesn’t think of itself as a close ground support service.  They want to rely on the high-flying B-2, and use to technology to compensate for the distance of the pilot from the ground.  Would the trapped Israeli scenario described above be possible if the pilot was flying a B-2?  Would the infantryman know enough to make the proper request to the most appropriate airplane?

Let’s say the infantryman, or more likely a forward observer, was adequately trained for interoperable communications. Could he do anything else useful?  This is not a facetious question. Modern American soldiers are among the most educated in history. In order to coordinate with other services, they will have to learn even more. Cognitive overload is a definite danger.

Even if we are able to adequately train all the services to work well and play nice together, will it do any good? As noted above, American military personnel had been trained in interoperability for the Grenada invasion. Interoperability failed almost immediately. A number of reasons have been cited, but one of the more interesting is the lack of “exercise realism.” Joint service exercises are thoroughly prepared and optimized for results. Of course, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” but multiple service cooperation adds a layer of complexity that is easily disrupted.

There are other difficulties, which will be familiar to anyone who has read about interoperable battlefield communications. The need for an open network conflicts with security requirements. Bandwidth management is already a problem, but will get worse with an increase in radio communications.

Interoperable communications have vastly improved. Tales of pilots talking directly to ground-pounders inspire a ho-hum reaction. But we have a long way to go before we fulfill the true promise of interoperability.

 For his insights, many thanks to Rob Culver.

 He can be reached at (603) 325 3376 or




FirstNet By The Numbers [INFOGRAPHIC & PPT]

FirstNet JPEG v2Oregon’s Single Point of Contact (SPOC) for FirstNet, Steve Noel, had a problem.  He and the Oregon state outreach team needed to contact hundreds of officials about the ambitious plan to provide interoperable communications for First Responders.  Even for communications professionals, FirstNet is not the easiest thing to understand.

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Inspired by Pinterest, they put together a bare-bones, fact-filled infographic.  This straightforward graphic explanation of basic facts has proven extremely effective and surprisingly popular. Buoyed by success of inforgraphic, Steve created a companion PowerPoint demonstration. If you are looking for a good introduction to FirstNet, view infographic here.  For more information, download Power Point.

What’s in your bag?

felix the catSuppose you have a bag of plug-and-play hardware/apps for your laptop, what would be in it? AMREL has a proprietary technology that allows you to instantly install hardware in your DVD/CD drive. So far, we have modules for different radio frequencies, biometric enrollment, targeting solutions, operator control units for unmanned systems, and others. What would you like to instantly install in your laptop? CAC card reader? RFID scanner? Coffee cup holder? Please leave a comment.

For more information visit: Flexpedient.


Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: What does it mean?

roadmapAncient Romans looked at the remains of birds to decipher the future.  Modern people –specifically those in the unmanned industry – look at government roadmaps.  What does the latest Department of Defense (DoD) offering tell us about our upcoming prospects?

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UGV cost & why they should have leather seats

Biggest problems facing robot developers

Recently, I interviewed Rob Culver, Director of AMREL’s Business Development and Sales of Unmanned/Manned Vehicle Systems.  Rob has done stints as a procurement officer, and in Special Projects Management Office at USASOC. After serving 23 years in the Army, Rob joined iRobot in 2005.  He traces his lifelong interest in robotics to reading Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Trooper” and Douglas Adams “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”UGV with leather seats

My sense is that unmanned systems, especially ground vehicles, are at some kind of crossroads.  The technology is advancing rapidly, but the land wars are winding down.  The domestic market hasn’t increased to the point to make up for the slacking demand by the Department of Defense (DOD). What do you see as the biggest challenge to the industry?

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Everything You Know about Public Safety Interoperability is Wrong

policeradiointeroperableOK, maybe not everything you know is wrong.  However, at a recent National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) Seminar, I was impressed with not just how little I knew, but also how much that I thought I knew was simply not true.

Test your level of misconceptions below:


1)    Interoperability is not the ability to talk with everyone all of the time. Read more

Interoperability: “ Bandwidth is more precious than gold and platinum”

At the recent Ground Robotics Capability Conference (GRCC), I surveyed a number of vendors about what was on their mind. I read them a list of topics that are frequently covered in OCU Pro newsletters as well as AMREL’s corporate blog.

By far, one topic elicited more interest than any other: interoperability. On one hand, I was pleased. AMREL has been a leader for developing solutions that have the ability to “… to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system” (Merriam-Webster definition). For example, our Flexpedient® Solutions enable kit building of Operator Control Units with common control capabilities.

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Flexpedient Interoperable Solutions Video

Flexpedient® Technology enables one computer to run a variety of applications, including robotics and biometrics.  This field-expedient system allows developers to protect proprietary technology while deploying it in an interoperable solution.  To see just how simple it is, watch this video.

AMREL at Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference

AMREL at the Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference
March 22 – 24, 2011 – Orlando, Florida – Booth #112


Flexpedient® Technology now extends existing radio modules’

capabilities to both our OCUs AND payload controllers


Come see AMREL’s latest platforms, including:

  • New 986 series laptops with standard Flexpedient device bays
  • Atom-based handheld computers & OCUs
  • Up-to-minute OCU form factors

To find out about AMREL’s hospitality suite, contact Mike Castillo at:

Office: (626) 443-681, ext 190

Cell: (626) 482-8791


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, 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.