DOD's grand plan

Navy thinker Cebrowski says net-centric architectures are immune to issues of scale.

'To underpin a networked organization you need a network-centric environment,' said John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's CIO Office.

Olivier Douliery

Early pieces of network-centric design are in play now

Place: The outskirts of Baghdad.

Time: The near future.

Scene: U.S. and allied ground forces have encircled the city and are preparing to advance on Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Data flowing from Global Positioning System receivers, surveillance systems, satellite communications and other systems has helped military commanders set the stage for an attack.

For now, this scenario is purely apocryphal. But the IT-facilitated planning and coordination'the speed to command'that would guide U.S. forces into position around the city, aren't.

It's not pure network-centric warfare, the cornerstone of the Defense Department's strategic plans for the transformation of forces. Not by a long shot. But it's getting closer.

'We can see those powers coming to the operational level'for example, the speed to plan,' said retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, director of the Office of Force Transformation and the Pentagon's chief theorist on network-centric warfare. 'Many people marveled at the rate at which we could begin the Afghan campaign after 9/11, in a place in which there was no prior [war] preparation.'

Cebrowski ascribed the ability of commanders in Operation Enduring Freedom to plan the Afghan campaign to information systems already in place, as fragmented as they are.

'A networked structure allows you to develop high-quality shared awareness at high speed and then to move toward product, in this case a plan,' he said.

The Pentagon's vision for true network-centric warfare'in which interoperable systems yield a shared, real-time awareness and knowledge of the battlespace, the Holy Grail of network-centric warfare'is a decade or more from becoming reality.

Early stages

Major initiatives such as the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, the Army's Global Command and Control System, and DOD's network of networks, the Global Information Grid, are still in the early stages of development.

But what he calls the precursive elements of network-centric warfare have been in play for years, Cebrowski said.

In their seminal 1996 report, Network Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future, Cebrowski and John Garstka, now OFT's assistant director for operational concepts, cited the use of IT in the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995 after the People's Republic of China attempted to influence Taiwanese elections with some saber rattling.

When the United States dispatched carrier battle groups to the straits, Adm. Archie Clemins, then commander of the Pacific Fleet, used e-mail, videoconferencing and a graphics-rich computing environment to reduce planning time for the operation from days to hours, they noted.

'Network-centric operations such as those used in the Taiwan Straits create a higher awareness and allow it to be maintained,' Cebrowski and Garstka noted. 'Such awareness will improve our ability to deter conflict or to prevail if conflict becomes avoidable.'

Ground forces

Seven years later, how would elements of network-centric warfare be applied in a conflict in Iraq, where'unlike recent actions in Afghanistan'a large ground force is likely to be brought to bear?

'While there might be a lot of network-centric technology used in Iraq, probably more than in Afghanistan, it may be less apparent because I expect a large-scale ground force deployment and occupation there,' said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington and manager of CDI's military reform project. 'And that tends to lean a lot more toward good, old-fashioned soldiering rather than a close air support war, which is what Afghanistan was.'

Asked how networks might work in any Iraqi operation, especially one that might involve the massive use of ground forces, Cebrowski said that networks have an inherent ability to adapt to force size.

'One of the nice things about network-centric principles is that they are largely immune to the issues of scale,' he said. 'It doesn't matter whether you're talking about very small forces or very large ones.'

John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's CIO Office, said that in general networked organizations are well-suited for fluid, fast-moving situations.

'It turns out that a networked organization generally does better when it's dealing with those partially structured or unstructured problems they have to solve,' he said. 'And to underpin a networked organization you need a network-centric environment.' Another difference from the Afghan operation is that an Iraqi theater could require heavy urban skirmishing, including hand-to-hand combat in the streets of Baghdad, which would underscore weaknesses in current frontline information systems.

Corbin speculated that in reaching full net-centricity, combat in 'cities will be the issue. We haven't quite got there yet with the network-centric stuff. The technology is at its weakest there.'

Defense officials agree that linking to soldiers on the front lines, at the edge of the physical network, is one of the biggest hurdles to seamlessly networked warfare because of the heavy reliance on wireless technologies that would be required.

Today's radio-frequency communications systems are still plagued by low bandwidth and intermittent connectivity, characteristics likely to be exacerbated in an urban arena.
Developing new wireless technologies to get the network to frontline warfighters is a major priority for the Pentagon, Cebrowski said.

'It is a problem now,' he said. 'The fact is that we're not as happy with that as we would like to be. This is an area where we should have a good, wholesome sense of dissatisfaction and continue to work it and not allow people who are shot at to be [at a disadvantage]. You cannot penalize the person who is at greatest risk. And we're going to do whatever it takes to see that he's not penalized.'

Breakthroughs coming soon

Cebrowski said he expects breakthroughs soon. 'I think we're going to start seeing this stuff pretty quickly,' he said. 'There are some exciting technologies out there to help us. We need to find a way to exploit those technologies.'

One effort to respond to the wireless problem in a digital battlespace is the nascent Joint Tactical Radio System. Through the JTRS program, DOD plans to replace about 30 families of largely incompatible legacy radios with a single, integrated voice and data system.

JTRS is supposed to eliminate communications barriers between warfighters with a modular system scaled to meet varying user needs. The interoperable, software-programmable radios will share a common architecture that can be applied to multiple platforms.

'The greatest challenge for most JTRS products is platform integration,' said Gary Martin, acting project manager for the Tactical Radio Communications System. 'It's got to go on a number of platforms. To put a radio in a tank or a helicopter requires a tremendous amount of integration.'

Ground and aviation forces are scheduled for initial JTRS fielding in 2006, Martin said.

Although new, interoperable wireless systems such as JTRS will pull frontline combatants more fully into the network and enhance the push toward pure net-centricity, some observers voice concern about what they see as network-centric warfare's liabilities. Information overload, for one.

'Network-centric warfare can be a good thing,' CDI's Corbin said. 'But there are a couple of dangers to watch out for. There are potential drawbacks to having everybody in the chain of command see everything all the time. There's the simple problem of having too much data and not being able to process it. And you can focus so much on the data that you don't stop to think about the bigger picture.'

At the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Milan Vego, a professor of operations, cautioned that network-centric warfare 'increasingly is becoming a new orthodoxy'a set of beliefs that cannot be seriously challenged.'

Writing in last month's issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings, Vego said that network-centric warfare 'places too much emphasis on tactics and the tactical level of war. The prominence of terms such as battlespace dominance, situational awareness and information grid are the best proof of how tactics and technology dominate the thinking in the U.S. military.

'The U.S. military is well on its way to eliminating the distinction between the art of war and military science because of its obsession with new technologies.'

In its push toward transformation, is the Pentagon becoming too dependent on technology? Cebrowski doesn't think so.

'The military has always been dependent on technologies, whether you're talking about the arrow or the crossbow,' he said. 'There has always been a manpower-technology nexus that is important. The error comes when it gets out of balance, and you focus on one to the exclusion of the other.'

Moreover, he said, the full benefits of IT won't be realized if the military doesn't adapt to new ways of processing information. 'There are always institutional barriers,' he said.

'You have to deal with this as a whole system,' he said. 'If someone is just touching at the technology piece of the network-centric warfare elephant, they may say, 'That's great, but I'm not seeing the return on investment.' But if they don't change the organizational structure, then the [technological] changes are on the margin and sometimes in the negative.'

Despite organizational and cultural hurdles, the military appears to be pushing inexorably toward technology-driven warfare. Indeed, the military's vision of warfare is progressively saturated with the language of IT.

Army program managers, for example, speak of individual combatants as systems unto themselves. The future ground force will be an integrated system, not a collection of stovepipes.

'We're approaching managing the soldier as a system,' Col. Theodore Johnson, project manager for the Army's Soldier Systems, told an audience last month at a conference in Washington on future ground forces.

The ground soldier will have 'a system-centric support architecture [and be] seamlessly integrated with other warriors,' Johnson said.

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