War plans go virtual

The joint command and control system needed to transform the U.S. military may be a Defense Department version of America Online.

DOD Online (DOL) could allow commanders to create a virtual headquarters manned with experts from across the military, government, academia and the commercial sector. Because the DOL prototype is composed of relatively inexpensive, commercially available technologies, officials at Joint Forces Command and in the Pentagon say it could render obsolete many current command, control and communications efforts — such as the multibillion-dollar Joint Tactical Radio System, and contracts that are tailored to one service, the way the Navy Marine Corps Intranet is.

The concept is so radical that it will be considered heresy in some military circles, said David Ozolek, deputy director of the Joint Forces Command's joint futures laboratory.

DOL — developed by the experimental division of Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. — includes, among other things, instant messaging, online chats and the ability to locate users online, and enables the sharing of programs and capabilities such as PowerPoint slides and 128-bit encryption without having to download the programs onto every computer. And all this is available via any Web browser on a PC, personal digital assistant or Web-enabled wireless phone. DOL also could eliminate the need for tactical radios, saving billions of dollars and dramatically reducing the need for bandwidth, a commodity in short supply, proponents say.

The creation of a robust joint command and control capability was the primary recommendation made after a two-month study by the Institute for Defense Analyses. Jim McCarthy, a retired Air Force general, headed the transformation panel and unveiled its results June 12 during a Pentagon press briefing.

"So far, we have not figured out how to organize, train and equip a joint command and control system," he said. The armed services need as much as $500 million in fiscal 2002 to develop and field such a system, the panel said.

Before the study's release, Joint Forces Command officials had already briefed the transformation panel on DOL. They have also briefed key lawmakers, the military's regional commanders and most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The technology today is there," said Annette Ratzenburger, engineering chief of the experimental directorate. "The tools are emerging that are going to solve our security concerns as well."

One Pentagon official who has seen the DOL prototype said it could revolutionize the military much as the Internet did. "What we're talking about is taking every piece of the battle space and connecting it together so that the one guy who is out there with the information can get it where it needs to go," said the official, who requested anonymity.

Ozolek said DOL challenges the very concept of command and control. "What we're talking about here is separating [command and control] into two different entities — a commander-centric, decision-making command function and a distributed, networked control function that can do the planning and coordination and analysis that lead to an informed decision, but at a speed and quality unthinkable by today's standards," he said. "That's transformation."

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