New information culture needed to fight the 'long war'

The war against terrorism depends on full information sharing and delivering intelligence to the warfighter on the ground. The military must jettison its longstanding concepts regarding information ownership and adapt information technology systems that meet the new threats, according to a speaker at the Air Force IT conference.

“We have to build a culture that is gathering that kind of information and making it available to commanders in the field,” said Gen. Lance Smith, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, at the conference Aug. 15 in Montgomery, Ala.

Military information management must become more decentralized and agile, Smith said. U.S. forces must get inside the enemy’s decision cycle by pushing information and decision-making down to the squad or company level, he added.

Information technology enables very high-level commanders to be more involved in battlefield decision-making, but this must be avoided, Smith said. These officials don’t have the best understanding of the situation on the ground. “The amount of information is so overwhelming, you can’t do it,” he said.

The structure of terrorist organizations requires a new approach, Smith said. Terrorist groups operate at the cellular level, with only broad guidance from their command structure. Terrorist cells have a short decision-making cycle, so they can act on intelligence quickly, he noted.

“We cannot operate against [the terrorists] until we give our guys out there fighting in the field the same capability, as much information as we can and the authority to act on that information in real time,” Smith said.

The war in Iraq revealed many drawbacks of the existing, incompatible information systems. During the initial battles, the visibility of American troops was poor. “When we went to war in Iraq, there were seven blue force trackers in the field, and none of them talked to each other,” he added.

Now there is a common operating picture, where all U.S. forces can be viewed together. But old habits in protecting information still prevent soldiers in Iraq from accomplishing their missions safely.

For example, a huge database of information on the improvised explosive device threat is located in the SIPRNET, the classified section of DOD’s Global Information Grid, he said. But soldiers on the ground in Iraq don’t have access to the SIPRNET and can’t benefit from the database.

Incompatible communications systems have also hampered U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Smith said. Funds meant for postwar reconstruction efforts were used to patch together systems needed for joint operations, he added.

“I can’t begin to tell you how much of that $18 billion was spent on just trying to get systems to talk to one another,” he said. “That’s an investment that should have been spent on reconstruction or fighting.”

Constrained budgets mandate adapting legacy systems for immediate use, rather than concentrating on new technologies, Smith said. “Every soldier out there in the field believes he is entitled to his own personal, full-motion video,” he said. “But we can’t keep up with that."

He also called for the military to agree on an enforceable, integrated data strategy and pointed to industry agreements on standards, which benefit everyone. However, in the military, services have set up data fiefdoms to protect information they believe to be unique to them, Smith said.

“There is no unique data because you don’t know what the future is,” he said.

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