Network-centric warfare 21st century

Jan. 1, 2000
The growing use of data and voice networks have the potential to blend decision makers, sensors, and shooters into an efficient and lethal mix of flexible, coordinated, and fast-moving combat forces

The growing use of data and voice networks have the potential to blend decision makers, sensors, and shooters into an efficient and lethal mix of flexible, coordinated, and fast-moving combat forces

By J.R. Wilson

The 21st Century military will be unlike any force ever seen on Earth. It will move with great speed and stealth, strike with pinpoint precision, and bring unprecedented firepower to bear with active warfighter numbers that would have been considered small in Roman times. This will be possible because all involved will share the single most important weapon in any future arsenal: information.

The process of sharing is called network-centric warfare (NCW). This approach in large part is a combination of technologies covering sensors, communications, data processing, and data management. Military data networks are beginning to play a central role in linking sensors in the air, on land, and under the oceans; integrating logistics to ensure timely supply of military forces and adequate medical treatment for military personnel; and coordinating conventional military attacks as well as electronic and information warfare efforts.

One of the most complete overall definitions of network-centric warfare is in the 1999 book network-centric Warfare: Developing and Leveraging Information Superiority by David Alberts, John Garstka, and Frederick Stein. Garstka is the scientific and technical advisor for the Command, Control & Communications Systems Directorate on the U.S. military`s Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

"We define NCW as an information superiority-enabled concept of operations that generates increased combat power by networking sensors, decision makers, and shooters to achieve shared awareness, increased speed of command, higher tempo of operations, greater lethality, increased survivability, and a degree of self-synchronization," the authors write. "In essence, NCW translates information superiority into combat power by effectively linking knowledgeable entities in the battlespace."

Elements of U.S.-sponsored network-centric warfare range from the Navy Cooperative Engagement Capability — better known as CEC — to the Air Force Aerospace Expeditionary Force to the Army Force-21 process, and the Marine Corps Operational Maneuver From the Sea and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver. The key is not only acquiring information from sensors, human intelligence agents, and databases, but also merging data from sources that never been linked before, transforming data into usable information, and channeling this information quickly to the right people in useful form.

The role of COTS

As with all other military programs, network-centric warfare is and will continue to rely heavily on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment. Using commercially developed technologies and components helps defense officials take advantage of private industry`s economy of scale and research budget, which the military could never match.

Experts caution that the use of COTS components also means much of that technology will be readily available to potential adversaries. There is growing concern in the U.S. Defense Department about reports of information warfare efforts in the People`s Republic of China. Still, military planners believe the U.S. will be able to maintain information and overall superiority in any combat theater because of unmatched sensor input and equally unmatched firepower.

"Potential adversaries can exploit the same technology, but we have better nodes, whether you are talking about the Joint Strike Fighter, F-117s, or sensors," says the Joint Staff`s Garstka. "Also, when you can connect, you can design different types of platforms, with different sizes and capabilities."

Networking sensor information will be a crucial capability on tomorrow`s battlefield, Garstka says. "It`s not the technology by itself. It is the fact you can network the information from the sensors; you have to have those first. This emerging technology makes it easier to connect those nodes and distribute the information they collect to the warfighting force. The technology is fundamentally a commodity. We have to explore the new types of organizations and processes that can be engendered by a shift to network-centric capabilities."

Still, Alberts, Garstka, and Stein warn that advanced networking technology can be a double-edge sword. "The increasing availability and affordability of information, information technologies, and Information Age weapons increases the potential for creating formidable foes from impotent adversaries," they wrote in network-centric Warfare. "In some instances, the line between war and peace and between friend, foe and neutral is blurred beyond recognition ... Lethal weapons may become of little value in many situations when the political costs of using them far outweigh their effects."

Paradigm shift

The new frontier of "asymmetric warfare", they write, represents a fundamental shift from established modes of warfare. It involves each side "playing by its own set of rules that emphasize their respective strengths, while attempting to exploit an adversary`s weakness," they write. "It is a far cry from the tank-on-tank battles or naval engagements of the past. This makes it very difficult to develop indications and warnings to alert us to someone preparing for war. Rather than working around the clock to produce aircraft, an adversary may be educating computer scientists or recruiting computer hackers."

The drive toward network-centric warfare began 16 years ago with the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. There, the U.S. military services involved found their communications systems could not talk to each other, and one soldier reportedly called in an air strike using a public telephone and his AT&T calling card. This issue of incompatible communications systems received even more pressing emphasis seven years later during the 1990 Persian Gulf War, in which fast-moving tanks had difficulty differentiating one another from Iraqi forces.

Theoretically, a set of robust battlefield networks might have enabled every private in his foxhole to know as much as every general in the Pentagon — at the same time — and receive orders directly from the Commander in Chief in the Oval Office. Service doctrine and chain of command, of course, would prevent the president from giving orders directly to soldiers in foxholes, but networking could make such capability physically possible.

In practice, the goal of network-centric warfare is to provide combatants in the field with all the information they need — and the ability to send new information back up the stream — in real time. It also would provide relevant information to each level of command simultaneously, eliminating the need for field commanders to divert attention from the immediate concerns of battle to brief their superiors. It also could speed the gathering of new information from disparate points and disseminating it to those who need it the most.

"When you are able to network a force you can provide shared awareness by overcoming the limitations of individual sensors," Garstka says. This could mean blending information gathered from unmanned aerial vehicles, manned aircraft, satellites, and even soldiers on the ground. "In the past, these types of sensors were reported to various pigeonholes and the information was not available to be shared," he says. "But sensors dominate reach — we can strike anything we can find."

The problem, Garstka explains, is to assign specific jobs to each sensor. This, he says, is key to developing and exploiting an information advantage. "The opportunity cost associated with not being able to connect when you have a digitized force is a magnitude higher than simply not having access to a radio," he points out.

Merging systems

Experts say this new level of awareness, when it spreads throughout joint-force and coalition forces of the future, will more than double today`s combat power. Reaching that point, however, will not be easy. Past approaches to implementing new technologies among the services, after all, have led to serious datalink interoperability problems.

"First, you have to deal with your legacy systems. You can`t just wave a magic wand and put everything new into the field," says retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Wesley Jordan, vice president of GTE Federal Network Systems in Arlington, Va. While on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Jordan directed the Command and Control Planning and Programming and Antisubmarine Warfare divisions and also served as deputy director for Space and Electronics Warfare.

It was to focus attention on those problems and ensure all new efforts are designed to work together smoothly that then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili published Joint Vision 2010 in 1996 as a conceptual template for future joint warfighting — with information networks as the centerpiece.

"When you start looking at the challenges as they will exist in 2010, the importance of a global information link looms large," Garstka says. "As the warfighter plugs into the net and transits the battlespace, we need to make sure the information needed can be pulled up. We`re still struggling with how to make that happen."

While there is a broad range of enabling technologies behind network-centric warfare, the need for new technology is nearly as important as finding the best way to employ the technology already in place. For example, a variety of existing sensors could provide an integrated air picture in real time. Yet bringing that information to those who need it means everything that flies — and everyone connected with the air mission — must be on the network. The same is true for joint-theater air and missile defenses. It also applies to logistics, medical support, battle damage assessment, as well as tracking and striking mobile targets.

Some notions of network-centric warfare divide it into three "grids":

- command and control, or "information";

- sensors; and

- engagement, or "shooters."

The information grid provides the network-centric warfare computer and communications infrastructure and the means to receive, process, transport, store, and protect information for the joint force, as well as assure its validity.

Sensor grids are all air-, sea-, ground-, space- and cyberspace-based sensors, whether they be dedicated, part of weapons platforms, or employed by individual soldiers.

Engagement grids, meanwhile, make the most of the network-centric heightened battlespace awareness to mass and quickly bring to bear the shooters on land, sea, and in the air. Engagement grids execute operations at a decisive speed and tempo; shape the battlespace; maximize joint combat power, and lock out enemy courses of action.

Sensors and shooters

Perhaps the greatest distinction between traditional, or "platform-centric," warfare and network-centric warfare involves the linkage between decision-makers, sensors, and shooters; platform-centric warfare tightly links all three, while network- centric warfare may separate these assets and then link them in different ways. More to the point, in platform-centric operations, the platforms own the weapons, which in turn have their own sensors. In network-centric warfare, sensors do not necessarily belong to shooters — or shooters to decision-makers.

"We use the term global battlespace for this concept, the notion that everything will be tied to everything," says Dee Andrews, technical advisor for the Warfighter Training Research Division at the Air Force Research Lab in Mesa, Ariz. "The expense of sending out one aircraft with one set of sensors that will only provide information to that aircraft or a few others for that flight simply can no longer be afforded. The `eye-point` of the commander and others as well now can move all over the battlefield."

Andrews points out the most imposing challenges to this approach is "synthesizing all of that information at the right level." Doing this right, Andrews says, could go a long way to clearing the so-called "fog of war" that has fundamentally plagued soldiers and commanders for millennia. Network-centric warfare, provided it distributes information efficiently, could help every combatant keep a detailed and focused view of the battle area. This would be a radical departure from the platform-centric problem of situational awareness steadily deteriorating, reestablishing with the advent of new information, then deteriorating again.

Garstka notes that no battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy. This is so because situational awareness breaks down quickly once the fight starts. It is a problem that tends to snowball as commanders delay decisions until they can get the newest and best information available.

Leaders of the Iowa National Guard, who have linked virtually every entity in the state by fiber optics, are volunteering to be a network-centric test bed for the Air Force Air Combat Command and the Air Command and Control Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va., as well as for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va.

Training issues

Network-centric warfare also will make training even more important than it is now, experts say. "One of the problems we have is getting training thought about early enough in any program, which is one reason we are interested in working with the Guard unit," Andrews says. He says the U.S. Air Force also considers its new concept of Distributed Mission Training (DMT) to be an integral part of network-centric warfare.

"The Air Force is solidly behind DMT, largely because they see this network-centric environment evolving and the ability to train in a network environment allows you to train the way you fight," Andrews says. "The Air Force has formed an integrated product team to put together the requirements for DMT and how it will be resourced. And that will be used for test and evaluation, tactics development and so forth, not just training. It is kind of a Swiss Army knife approach that potentially solves a lot of problems."

Army planners are taking a similar approach as they evolve the concept of a single tactical engagement simulation system (OneTESS). Their aim is to link and incorporate all of their training efforts with Land Warrior, which is to provide each soldier and Marine not only with increased firepower and protection, but also with a networked battlefield computer. Much of this will come from commercial business networks, from head-mounted displays to militarized versions of handheld computing devices such as the Palm line from 3Com in Santa Clara, Calif.

Enabling technologies for this approach are to include advanced cellphone technologies, miniaturized global positioning system devices, personal area networks (PANS) based on the sub-10 meter broadcast range of the Bluetooth transceiver chip, and CompactFlash memory storage cards. These will provide every individual in the network — from president to private — with the tools they need to connect.

The real problem for network-centric warfare planners is not so much technological as it is procedural. A host of issues confront military and aerospace planners. "One of the big questions from a human-factors standpoint is not just do we have the technology, but what do we really want to do with it?" Andrews says, noting it also is a question that is facing the commercial sector.

One example lies in commercial jetliner design. Engineers from Boeing and Airbus disagree on who should have the final say in today`s advanced — and highly network-centric — cockpits: the pilot or the computer. Is the safest approach to give the computer ultimate control in an emergency? After all, the computer reacts more quickly than human pilots do, and has better ability to assimilate several different — and sometimes conflicting — streams of data better. Or should a pilot`s experience and instinct be able to override the computer and manually fly the aircraft to safety?

To continue the example, should the network of a military aircraft provide information to the pilot, or primarily to the aircraft`s sophisticated automated systems? Is the pilot to be the operator or the executive agent? A modern bomber can fly quickly to its target following terrain at low altitudes, launch its precision-guided weapons, and return to base with no live pilot input whatsoever. With networked sensor inputs along the way, it could even alter course, switch targets, or change landing sites without the pilot taking action. But if that is the approach, what is the role of the human pilot in network-centric warfare?

"We haven`t really come to grips with that yet," Andrews admits. "The datastream could be so large and complex it could quickly overwhelm the pilot. But if it only goes into the aircraft, at some point an automated decision could be made the pilot doesn`t agree with but may not be able to act quickly enough to override. We are, of course, going into more unmanned combat air vehicle efforts. It may be the Joint Strike Fighter will be the last piloted combat aircraft." The same concerns about information overload and automation apply throughout the battlespace, not just in the air.

"Even with the current command and control systems, if you simulate the battlefield and information flow the way people say it is going to be, there is too much information going to too many people and they will spend too much time trying to digest that information with no time left to fight the battle," says Judith Dahmann, chief scientist at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office in Alexandria, Va. "Technology now allows people to do new things, but we haven`t really figured out how we want to do it now that we have the technology. It`s a learning process. Some work will be needed to figure all that out and we`re just now starting to work on that."

With all the human-factors facing them, however, planners ought not to lose sight of the primary goal of using information in the wisest way possible. Garstka and his colleagues note in their book, "NCW is not about turning the battle over to `the network` or even about relying more on automated tools and decision aids. It is really about exploiting information to maximize combat power by bringing more of our available information and warfighting assets to bear effectively and efficiently."

While the battlespace of the future will be increasingly populated by automated tools and decision aids, human commanders and warfighters will remain at the core of all network-centric warfare efforts, in some cases in roles never before seen in battle.

Future Joint Tactical Radio is key to the Tactical Internet

A significant element of network-centric warfare is the U.S. Army`s evolving Tactical Internet (TI) — a communications infrastructure and sub-element of the Army Battle Command System. The Tactical Internet comprises three systems: the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS), the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), and the Mobile Subscriber Equipment/Tactical Packet Network (MSE/TPN).

"These will be connected to form a single, seamless, data communications system for digitized Army brigades, divisions, and corps," says Lt. Gen. William Campbell, director for the Army`s Command, Control, Communications, and Computers (DISC4) headquarters at the Pentagon. "The Tactical Internet will promote information sharing and will be readily available to every authorized user with access to the network. The Tactical Internet will be critical to achieving situational awareness on the battlefield at brigade and below."

Designed primarily to promote situational awareness among tactical forces — U.S. and allied, at all levels — the Tactical Internet is to disseminate a common understanding of the battlespace by rapidly and clearly communicating information and orders. It is to support such key services as messaging, directory, network management, and security.

"The TI is the centerpiece of `digitization` — the digital conduit that transports information to improve lethality, increase tempo, and enhance survivability," Campbell told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee last year.

However, he warned, "even with the ongoing SINCGARS, EPLRS, and MSE/TPN enhancements, the channel capacity of the Tactical Internet is insufficient."

Until a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) becomes operational to satisfy future wideband networked datalinks, the Army will be relying on the Near Term Digital Radio to fill the void temporarily as a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to TOC data hauler in time for the Army`s first digitized division later this year.

The JTRS is the key to achieving true joint interoperability in the TOC, Campbell says. "JTRS is more than a radio. It is the first component necessary to build a Joint Tactical Internet. Succinctly, it is a multiband, multimode, software programmable, network capable radio. This is truly a revolutionary way of looking at a radio system." — J.R.W

Network security: many challenges and a long way to go

U.S. and allied military commanders rely ever more on the constantly flowing data stream at the heart of network-centric warfare (NCW). In that spirit, U.S. military leaders anticipate that future adversaries will fight back by concentrating more heavily on breaking the security of U.S. and allied networks.

Defending against attacks on U.S. networks requires the quick detection of break-ins and timely repair of any damage. The threat comes from everything from third-party hackers to sophisticated computer experts working for an enemy, and may involve intrusion, deception, interception, corruption, or modification of networks and data.

Because the network cannot tolerate any weak links, its defense must be robust, joint, mobile, and multilevel, say military security analysts. Network defense must include multilevel security of information, computers, and communications that is embedded in the network architecture and included in doctrine.

"Traditionally, the military has ensured the security of its information systems by a risk-avoidance strategy," notes Capt. Dan Galik, head of the Navy Information Systems Security Program Office at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego.

Navy Risk avoidance consists of keeping its network infrastructure separate from the public Internet and strictly limiting access to it via locked spaces, security clearances, and cryptographic devices. "However, the drive to attain network-centric warfare capability has profound implications for security and requires a significant shift in the protection strategy, Galik says."

Open standards, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, full connectivity, and regionalized information services require a new protection strategy based not on risk management but rather than on risk avoidance.

"We are now embracing widely known common technologies, recognizing that some of these technologies come with well-documented vulnerabilities," Galik warns. "Further, as more and more systems are interconnected, the user population increases significantly, thus increasing the threat of insider attacks. Finally, regardless of the level of insider threats, the sharing of a common infrastructure that connects with the public Internet brings with it a world-wide host of hackers, criminals, and foreign agents who are practiced and capable of surfing their way through that infrastructure."

Among the tools Navy experts are using in this new battlefront are heightened levels of encryption and firewalls — layered gateways used selectively to allow external users access to information. Other weapons include software that checks the content of incoming data for hidden viruses or other forms of attack and programs that authenticate the source of all incoming transmissions.

Such security efforts long pre-date network-centric warfare, of course. Throughout the Cold War, combating ever-improving Soviet capabilities to jam U.S. voice and data communications was a constant problem.

"The life expectancy of electronic security measures is probably less than that of a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] man on Guadalcanal," says retired Rear Adm. Wesley Jordan, vice president of GTE Federal Network Systems of Arlington, Va. "That will be a continuing and very dynamic struggle. But we`ve been there before and that certainly is not a game stopper. Every datalink, every voice circuit, all command and control — this point-counterpoint will be with us no matter what we do. We simply must make sure we put enough robustness in there to fall back and fight through it."

One point of agreement among those waging the information security battle is that no system can be bulletproof. Jordan says more important than insisting on perfect protection is to develop a solid disaster recovery capability — whether from a hacker or the side effects of a hurricane.

In a presentation before the 1999 Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, president of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., noted that the flexibility and adaptability of well-designed networks tends not only to make them robust, but also to thwart efforts to defeat them.

"Alternate routings, self-repairs, and rapid reconstitution tend to be characteristic of good networks," he said. "Beyond the structure of the network, operation of the network by knowledgeable professionals provides the other ingredient of robustness. The key — and the rub —here is to ensure that one`s networks are, in fact, carefully designed and skillfully operated."

Army information experts are using known capabilities of potential adversaries to probe the system themselves and identify weaknesses and plan possible countermeasure, testified Lt. Gen. William Campbell, director for the Army`s Command, Control, Communications, and Computers (DISC4) headquarters at the Pentagon, to the House Armed Services Committee last year.

"The full effect of modern precision fire power, maneuver capabilities, and split-based operations resident on the 21st Century battlefield will not be realized without investing sufficiently in protecting the information infrastructure that binds these components together," Campbell told Congress. — J.R.W.

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