Netcentric ops a test of wills and miracles

 - November 30, 2006, 9:50 AM

It would take a miracle–in fact, two miracles–for network-centric operations (NCO) to become a reality. So says John Allen of the Advanced Technology Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA). Many companies in the defense industry claim to offer solutions for NCO, but only a few have demonstrated even minor miracles in the field.

Allen defined NCO for a conference of scientists in the U.S. last year as “the immediate attack of targets of opportunity using any and all assets available: any sensor, any effect generator and any decider against any target.” But, he added, it would take “a communications miracle” and “a decision miracle” to make it happen.

Messages come in different text formats, and use different modes of dissemination (datalinks, packet switched networks and so forth) across a huge frequency spectrum, or across wires and cables. If the appropriate messages are flowing freely and quickly, then, Allen said, “a human or a trusted software agent” must decide whether the appropriate resources to strike are available, whether the target can be engaged before it flees, whether the rules of engagement are met and whether it is even worth bothering about.

Allen identified various enabling technologies that need further development before NCO can become a reality. These include:

• Automatic identification and verification of communications connectivity;

• Distributed, decentralized and automated methods of assessing the mission potential; and

• Real-time formation of multiplatform/multisensor constellations.

The major defense contractors are now demonstrating some or all of this in laboratories, where software engineers and operations analysts explore various collaborative environments.

For instance, BAE Systems’ Battlespace Management Evaluation Center at Farnborough plays a key part in a British Ministry of Defence initiative to work with industry to develop NCO called NITEworks (network integration, test and experimentation capability). [The UK calls it NEC (network-enabled capability.)]

Last April, Lockheed Martin created a “center for innovation” in Suffolk, Virginia, to do advanced modeling and simulate net-centric solutions. Also known as “The Lighthouse,” the center will have a reconfigurable command and control laboratory.

“There are a zillion possibilities to trade off,” said one LM vice president. For instance, in its first experiment, the center explored how a threat identified by a loitering missile could be relayed to the global information grid (GIG) and quickly accessed by a task force. The GIG is the Pentagon’s information framework, but discovering what’s available on it “is a tough challenge,” according to one director at the Lockheed Martin center.

Raytheon has established Net Centric Systems as one of its seven divisions, with a charter that includes teaching all of the company’s 48,000 engineers to think in a net-centric way. Unlike other major defense companies, Raytheon does not manufacture large military aircraft or warships. It therefore has the advantage of being able to take a “platform-agnostic” view of NCO, according to company officials.

According to Raytheon, NCO has the potential to add lots of new defense capabilities without big new investments. Rather than net-centric techniques creating a “system of systems,” the company thinks it is more useful to think in terms of a system of elements.

Perhaps the most impressive progress to date–at least in airborne NCO–has been made by ComCept, a systems engineering division of L-3 Communications. ComCept has integrated a constellation of existing air, space and surface surveillance assets that use different types of sensors. But even this initiative remains hostage to long-term improvements in connectivity, such as robust, secure datalinks with enough bandwidth.

Northrop Grumman has a couple of initiatives in net-centric communications. It has flight-tested an Internet protocol-based airborne communications relay and information server. Called the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, the server is remotely controlled from the ground.

The company has also developed what it calls an Advanced Information Architecture for the U.S. Marine Corps. This is a tactical ad-hoc network which will enable troops on the ground to request, for instance, video imagery from a targeting pod on an AV-8B or F/A-18D strike aircraft.

The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is a much larger piece of future NCO. This huge U.S. program to re-equip aircraft and ships with software-programmable radios that automatically adapt to form battlefield networks is being re-examined by the Pentagon. There are doubts about the practicalities of using common antennas and amplifiers across such a wide frequency spectrum. There are also concerns about communications security of the JTRS.

Since NCO requires connectivity and interoperability on a grand scale, and no single industrial enterprise will supply all the pieces of the puzzle, there is an acute need for agreements on standards and procedures. Eighteen months ago, 27 companies in Europe and the U.S. agreed to form the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC). The idea was to collaborate on basic infrastructure, “while still enabling robust and healthy competition across the industry,” according to Saab, one the founders of NCOIC. The group has since tripled in membership, but some NCO specialists say it is tough to capture standards in the fast-moving world of information technology.

Even if the industry succeeds in this quest for open, agreed-upon standards, there’s a big question-mark about net-centric warfare waged by coalition forces. In particular, do U.S. security procedures inhibit the whole concept? According to Brig. Gen. Dennis Moran, the J-6 [Command, Control, Communications and Computer System Directorate] at U.S. Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom, “one of the biggest challenges we faced was sharing timely information from the U.S.-only network in a seamless manner with our coalition partners. We had some work-arounds that were less than fulfilling.”