The military services’ inability to access and share data has led to some tactical mistakes on the battlefield that could have been prevented, an intelligence official told a recent industry conference.
“We have bombed things we shouldn’t have bombed. And information was there that just wasn’t in the database that we were using for our targeting purposes. It was in somebody else’s. That shouldn’t happen,” said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Ennis, a former human intelligence director at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now serves as deputy director for the Central Intelligence Agency’s national clandestine service for community human intelligence.
Speaking at a Defense News Media Group conference, Ennis said the example highlights the greatest challenge in joint warfare: information sharing.
“I think where we have not yet made the advancements that we could make in the joint world is through information sharing … which leads to the acceleration of the planning process and the decision-making process,” he said.
Compounding the problem, he said, is a fundamental lack of common understanding of what information sharing entails. Some believe increasing the number of analysts who gather and interpret data will promote better information sharing, while others think putting more information up on more Web sites will solve the issue. Neither one is the right solution, said Ennis.
“The people in the field don’t have a clue that the Web site even exists, much less the ability to go to find it,” he pointed out.
As the armed forces become more capable of accessing electronic information from the battlefield, the limitations of available databases are becoming abundantly clear. Information that should be readily accessible with a few mouse clicks too often is inaccessible among groups. And even when the information is accessed, it often is fragmented and requires even more effort to hunt down and piece together.
“Right now, we spend an inordinate amount of time searching for information on these thousands of Web sites,” he said.
Case in point: A commander during Operation Enduring Freedom wanted a printed map of his area of responsibility in Afghanistan. But rather than finding exactly what he needed on the military databases, he had to consult a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Web site, download several maps of the country, paste them together, cut out the center and photocopy the ad hoc result, said Ennis.
Ideally, he could have pulled it up on the military’s protected network, manipulated the results using computer tools and printed out a custom map.
“We’re not there yet. We should be,” he said.
Ennis’s solution to the information sharing problem is three-pronged: network defense databases so data is accessible, organize and standardize the information so that it’s retrievable and understandable, and tag it with metadata so that it’s discoverable.
Much like a card catalog at a library, metadata includes descriptive information about the context or characteristics of data, which facilitate the search process.
Solutions that can automate and consolidate information abound in the commercial world and the Defense Department needs to adopt them, said Ennis.
Napster, for example, networks millions of databases together and allows a user to find a single song in less than 10 seconds.
“If a 17-year-old kid can figure out a way to wire together 150 million databases, we at the Defense Department ought to be able to figure out about a hundred of them,” he said.
But even the commercial offerings have limitations. Google, a popular Internet search engine, hits about 34 percent of available data sources, said Ennis.
“Is that the kind of standard you want to go to your commanding officer or commanding general with?” he said. “It’s not going to work.”
Companies are working on ways to improve the electronic link within the Defense Department.
Raytheon’s Distributed Common Ground Systems, or DCGS, part of the Air Force’s global network weapon system, is laying the foundation for all the armed forces to develop systems that will allow them to share information, derived from all sources, with one another.
“DCGS is the very first system that tags metadata to the sensors, the analysts, the systems that are out there, and they expose the data, the resources and the analysts to everybody else in that network so they can find each other, so they can find the information, so they can share it. That is revolutionary in those communities,” Mark Bigham, director for business development and tactical intelligence systems at Raytheon, told reporters in Texas.
As technological solutions make their way into the Pentagon and filter through the department, another hindrance lies in the road — this one political in nature.
Access to international databases is extremely important to waging a war that knows no boundaries, but countries are reluctant to open their information floodgates to outsiders, said Ennis.
“That does not mean we cannot take small steps right now,” he said. Having a country make decisions on what information it would be willing to make accessible to coalition partners would be a start to better information sharing on a global scale.
A system designed to allow only approved information beyond a firewall would benefit the world’s defense community.
“That’s the beauty of this architecture, that you only make information you’re willing to expose, available,” said Ennis.