Network-centric warfare: Not there yet

When Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March, it was ballyhooed as the first war of the new century. The military action was going to be the first opportunity to put theories to a real-world test and determine if technology had created a leaner, more lethal fighting force.

Now that the offensive military aspects of the war have all but ended, military officials are evaluating what went right and what went wrong during the campaign in hopes of learning lessons that could shape the evolution of what has come to be known as network-centric warfare.

The theory behind network-centric operations is that linking disparate portions of the battlefield will allow the U.S. armed services to deploy a more focused — and more lethal — force by providing frontline warfighters with critical information, including a near-real-time view of the battlefield, to ensure knowledge superiority.

It is still too early to draw decisive conclusions about the Iraqi operation. However, many information technology leaders in the Defense Department say the war provided a glimpse of future capabilities, while some critics contend that it's impossible to validate the concept against what turned out to be a somewhat unsophisticated enemy.

Answering those questions is critical to DOD's future, because network-centric operations are at the heart of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's transformation vision.

Army Lt. Gen. Joseph "Keith" Kellogg Jr., director of command, control, communications and computers for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the formal lessons-learned process being led by Joint Forces Command will take time to complete. Yet preliminary observations show that network-centric operations helped U.S.-led forces win decisively in Iraq.

The review process is just beginning, said John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's chief information officer's office. It takes time to "separate emotions out of the reporting and [get] the actual facts of the lesson."

Still, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a "significant step forward in both identifying and appreciating what net-centric operations can do for us," he said.

"There were pockets of net-centric operations, but it was not a general operating paradigm," Osterholz said. "Where it was used, agility and the ability to change the configuration of forces [were] best brought out."

The reviews the Pentagon is conducting, specifically those focusing on net-centric operations, will form the basis of the tactics, techniques and procedures that should be used in future conflicts, said DOD deputy CIO Priscilla Guthrie in a speech to industry executives last week.

"We've always known the concept would work because it gives you agility and speed...and faster is better," Kellogg said. "In the past, we didn't have the enablers.... With the advent of technology and the applications of it in warfighting, now we see the glimmerings of network-centric warfare. We're starting to see it, but we're not there yet."

Rear Adm. Ken Slaght, commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, agreed and said Operation Iraqi Freedom has resulted in many conversations about net- centric operations with Joint Forces Warfare Command.

In 1991's Operation Desert Storm, "we had the capability of quick targeting in about four days by the end of the war," Slaght said, referring to the time needed to coordinate an attack on an enemy site. "In the latest conflict, we got that time down to 45 minutes. That's impressive, but we're not there yet."

IT systems helped keep Pentagon officials informed of every move coalition forces were making during the war, including sending bombers to time-sensitive targets in Baghdad and tracking troop movements, Kellogg said. Neither capability is fully mature, but both are getting better and helped keep military leaders worldwide informed and collaborating.

The armed services' goal is to be able to identify a target, relay that information to the right people and launch a weapon at the target — all in one or two minutes, Slaght said. "The component technology is there, and now we need to get it done."

Broad Scope, Bright Future

Net-centricity covers a range of issues, and in general, "the success of the campaign in Iraq can indeed be partially attributed to network-centric warfare," said Lt. Gen. Peter Cuviello, the Army's CIO.

"At the very least, the extensive data network linking command and control headquarters at all levels facilitated a more rapid sharing of information, reducing time to act and react, allowing us to operate inside the enemy's decision cycle," Cuviello said. "This alone is a tremendous benefit."

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking last month at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, went through a laundry list of technological advantages that contributed to the military victory, though he never used the term "network-centric."

Among the systems and capabilities that Cheney lauded were:

n Ten types of unmanned aerial vehicles, ranging from tactical systems that enabled soldiers to look over the next hill to strategic systems that operated at 65,000 feet and could provide images of areas the size of Illinois.

n Near-real-time imaging of targets, with photos and coordinates transmitted via e-mail to bombers in flight.

n Component commanders sharing a real-time computer display of air, land and sea forces, tailored to their specific needs.

n Battalion brigade and division commanders equipped with real-time computer display of all force movements.

"Those advances in command and control allowed us to integrate joint operations much more effectively than ever before, thereby enabling commanders to make decisions more rapidly, to target strikes more precisely, to minimize human casualties, civilian casualties, and to accomplish the missions more successfully," Cheney said.

Not Foolproof

But not everyone is convinced. The most significant problem with network-centric warfare, said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, is that he and many other former and current DOD personnel still "have no clue what it is."

DOD has made significant progress in getting the right information to the right people in near-real time, but "it's still far from foolproof," he said.

"There's a significant communications problem at the tactical units who were out of contact [in parts of Iraq] except for satellites," because there is not enough bandwidth to carry traffic on other systems, Van Riper said.

Not enough technology that drives network- centric warfare is finding its way into the hands of those who need it most: the warfighters, according to retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, director of DOD's Force Transformation Office, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

Although network-centric warfare is about culture as much as technology, the latter is what gives the advantage to those in combat. But a change in culture is needed to adopt that technology, Cebrowski said.

During the past year, all of the armed services have started incorporating network-centric principles into their operations, he said. "However, what we're seeing is essentially network-centric warfare for the joint task force commander. The next step is network-centric warfare for the warfighter — reflecting increased 'jointness' at the tactical level of war."

Transformation and network-centric warfare will first and foremost equip the military with speed, something that has been lacking, Cebrowski said.

The military services face challenges in achieving faster information dissemination and decision-making cycles because they have acted independently and created their own systems, architectures and applications, with little or no thought of interoperability with the other services or coalition partners, Slaght said.

"We need to get serious about common architectures," he said. "In the past, we have spent a lot of time and money on architectures and then put them on the shelf and didn't enforce them."

The services have only started developing interoperable architectures and applications during the past several years, Slaght said.

"In the Information Age, warfare is increasingly path- dependent — small changes in the initial conditions result in enormous changes in outcome," Cebrowski said. "Thus, speed becomes a more valuable characteristic of the entire force because we want to be able to define or alter the initial conditions on terms favorable to our interests.

"The goal is to develop high rates of change that an adversary cannot outpace, while sharply narrowing that adversary's strategic options," he said.

The lack of a formidable enemy is exactly why Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank, said he didn't think the Iraqi campaign proved that the concept of network-centric warfare works. The main reason for that is not DOD's fault — it's that the "enemy turned out to be truly incompetent," he said.

The Iraqi military did not blow up bridges or use chemical weapons and also did not exploit the lack of a coalition offensive from the northern front or take advantage of their dug-in urban positions, Thompson said.

"The Iraqis made so many mistakes it would be foolish to conclude that defeating them proved the viability of the new strategy," Thompson said.

DOD has demonstrated major gains in warfighting using wireless networking and other technologies, but it has not demonstrated "proven network integrity in a wartime environment when fighting a capable adversary," he said.

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