Incompatible weapon systems and disjointed information networks continue to be a source of frustration at the Defense Department, which launched an ambitious campaign six years ago to reshape the military services into “network-centric” forces.
While the services have acquired an abundance of network-based technologies in recent years for the war in Iraq, most of the systems they still operate were developed and purchased a decade or two ago, in isolation from each other. These “legacy” technologies, for the most part, cannot exchange or share data.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, had expected that, by now, it would have begun to gradually phase out the aging networks and replace them with a globally integrated grid. Incompatible communications devices also would be retired in favor of a software-based “joint tactical radio” net. And current radio communications satellites would give way to laser-based space systems.
The introduction of the next generation of technologies, however, is seeing a dramatic slowdown. Systems such as the joint tactical radio, the laser satellites and the “global information grid” have proved to be far more complex and expensive than planned.
So, while legacy systems are not going away any time soon, the Defense Department is not about to downscale its network-centric aspirations, says John J. Young Jr., director of defense research and engineering.
As the Pentagon’s “chief technology officer,” Young sees it as his job to help bridge the gap between service-unique weapon systems. “There is a growing need for DDR&E to represent the ‘E’ in the title, as the chief engineer,” Young said in an interview.
In his previous job as assistant secretary of the Navy for acquisitions, Young was in charge of the so-called “force-net” program, which seeks to integrate all naval systems. “As I left, we were working hard on force-net,” Young said. But it will be difficult for the Navy or any service to make this work unless they synch up their efforts, he added. “For force-net to be truly realized it needs to be a joint entity.”
Young now oversees a team of seasoned network engineers at the Defense Department. He directed them to come up with sensible, short-term solutions for making legacy systems interoperable.
The Pentagon leadership has acknowledged that it is not going to replace current technologies in the near future, and that “modest investments” can be made to improve existing hardware, Young said.
Most military systems were delivered at different points in time, he noted. They could have been made interoperable from the beginning, “but the process hasn’t done that,” Young said. “Now we find that things don’t always work together.
“You need a chief engineer with a purple view, and then you have to make hard decisions on who’s going to change, and who’s going to pay for that change … That’s one of the tough things the team is going to have to do: make recommendations about what systems may be easier to change.”
The team will deliver a near-term roadmap — for no later than 2010 — of “what things we can do with the tools we have to get the maximum amount of network centric force capability,” Young said.
One example of the improvements that would be sought in this roadmap is enhancements to the Link 16 communications and targeting network used by Air Force and Navy pilots.
“Many people anticipated the arrival of the joint tactical radio system, and not much investment was made in Link 16,” Young said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were things we could do in the near term to make Link 16 an easier network to plan.”
The team also will outline a longer-term blueprint, for 2015 and beyond. This plan would offer hypothetical scenarios for networking systems if the next-generation technologies become available.
Young said these roadmaps have high-level support at the Pentagon. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Kenneth Krieg is a “pretty big fan” of looking across all communications, command-and-control systems to get better capabilities, Young said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England asked Young to deliver the team’s recommendations in September.
The engineers on the team “see several places where we want to make adjustments, hopefully modest adjustments,” Young added. “Maybe middleware, maybe format changes in service specific systems so they can more easily trade information.
“As we move to more Internet-enabled things like chat-rooms, there may be some systems that will be proposed for near term and mid-term that we ought to prioritize and make an investment to make them Internet protocol enabled.”
Engineers would recommend which systems might be too costly to upgrade to the Internet protocol and should therefore be removed from service.
In drafting the roadmap, Young’s staff sought input from the Joint Staff, Joint Forces Command and military officials deployed overseas, he said. Tactical commanders, particularly, want to see more interoperability among weapon systems. “The combatant commanders get forces from each service and, in theater, have to figure out how to integrate them.”
Once in combat, war fighters often improvise and find ways to overcome the limitations of the technologies, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, former U.S. commander of air operations in the Middle East.
“I am a big believer in our move toward net-centric operations,” he said. But the reality is that most of the technologies used in combat today are legacy systems, and not easy to mesh.
Necessity, however, breeds invention.
While commanding air forces over Afghanistan, Buchanan needed to route sensor data from the U-2 spy aircraft to troops on the ground. Because ground forces did not have a connection to the U-2, Buchanan’s staff got operators in the United States to email certain pieces of information to the ground troops. “We didn’t have the direct link from the U-2 to the soldier, but we found a way around it,” he said.
Also in Afghanistan, Buchanan realized his command center had no direct link to the A-10 ground attack aircraft. Again, they winged it. One airman suggested strapping an Iridium satellite telephone to one of the A-10’s missile pods, along with a small 5-watt radio. Buchanan could then dial the number from the command center and contact the pilot, who could retransmit back on the 5-watt low power radio. “That’s kind of a Rube Goldberg way of making it work, but it worked,” Buchanan said. “It’s not very elegant, it’s not what you might want to have, but it’s the future.”
Like Young, Buchanan believes technologies such as the Link 16 could be made more valuable with relatively minor modifications. “Link 16 is a tremendous system … But one of the problems we had is that we could not pass accurate targeting data to all the fighters in the net.” That is because the protocols in the Navy F/A-18 terminals are different from those used in the Air Force F-16 and the British Harriers. From the command center, Buchanan said, “I could push targeting data into the net but there was no guarantee that it was going to be read in exactly the same manner in each one of those fighter cockpits … What we need is the ability to push electronic targeting data from a sensor, into the grid and to a targeting platform and weapon, and not have to worry that the data might be misinterpreted.”
Pentagon technology planners also need to realize that connectivity alone is not enough. They should worry about radio operators disrupting the frequencies of friendly forces, especially in an environment such as Iraq, which is saturated with radio waves from communications devices, drones and bomb jammers. “We are jamming each other in Iraq. It’s surprising that people are not out there wearing lead underwear … How do you manage all these frequencies and de-conflict?
“We don’t replicate that problem well in the laboratory. As we move to net centric operations we are going to have to.”
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