GAO: C4I links imperil troops

Many of the Defense Department's computer systems that are used to coordinate command, control and intelligence information among the military services are incapable of sharing and exchanging data, an interoperability problem that could result in the possible "loss of life, equipment or supplies" in future operations, according to a General Accounting Office report released this month.

In the blistering report, GAO concluded that DOD's noncompliance with regulations to certify that its mission-critical command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems are compatible "could have far-reaching effects" on the use of C4I systems in military operations. For example, during a recent joint military exercise, software problems caused some DOD systems to accept mislabeled data that identified a commercial aircraft as hostile, leading military units to shoot down the simulated airliner during the exercise, according to the report.

DOD adopted interoperability testing and certification as a result of a long-standing problem of sharing and exchanging electronic data among the military services. Although interoperability problems date to the 1983 Grenada invasion, the problem became more apparent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines learned that their service-specific command and control systems did not operate together, which hampered the success of joint operations.

"What you have is a military that is trying to [coordinate across services] when the information infrastructure [does not always allow for that]," said John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "It's more important than ever that they get this stuff to work."

The report specifically censures the coordination efforts made by the Joint Staff's director of C4I systems (J-6) and the Defense Information Systems Agency's Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC), both of which have prime responsibility for ensuring that all C4I systems are tested and certified to be compatible. "Systems receive approval for production and fielding even though they may not have been certified or [have] obtained waivers" from the certification process, GAO concluded.

Report Findings

According to the report, of the 2,176 classified and unclassified C4I systems listed in DOD's Defense Integration Support Tool database as of December 1997, DISA's Test Command and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense did not know how many required certification. From 1994 through 1997, the Test Command certified only 149 C4I systems, according to the report.

Officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency could not be reached for comment.

The Joint Staff's director of C4I systems (J-6) and the officials from the JITC could not be reached for comment.

In a Feb. 25 letter, Anthony Valletta, then-acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for C3I, said DOD "generally concurs with all GAO recommendations." Valletta assured GAO that "a number of efforts are already under way to improve the department's interoperability certification process" and that "DOD is firmly committed to interoperability."

However, Mike Decker, deputy assistant chief of staff for intelligence at Marine Corps headquarters, said different levels of interoperability need to be addressed. "The issue," Decker said, "is: How do you define interoperability?"

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