Information becomes a weapon

The military has a new weapon in its arsenal, and it’s not an impenetrable tank, silent submarine or UFO-like aircraft. It is information.

The most noteworthy element in the-now famous picture of U.S. special forces on horseback riding across Afghanistan is the steel-cased satellite communications equipment they are transporting, not their iron-clad arms. Information is now a weapon in the increasingly transformed military.

“It lets me do things smarter, not harder,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Michael Cmelik, a joint-tactical air controller (JTAC) in the 15th Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Stewart, Ga., who recently returned from Iraq. While in the Middle East, he was embedded with soldiers and called for air strikes when they came under fire.

JTACs now have a second set of eyes on the battlefield that make their work easier. Those eyes are a Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER). The ROVER, developed by L-3 Communications, is simply a laptop computer with antennas and cables. The system streams video collected from drones and surveillance aircraft so JTACs and pilots can see the same picture. It shortens the monotonous and time-consuming talk of describing targets to one another and allows them to coordinate attacks in about 30 seconds instead of five minutes.

“The situational awareness that ROVER provides in real time is the No. 1 thing for me,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Travis Crosby, a JTAC in the 15th Air Support Operations Squadron.

“ROVER gets information into the hands of people who really need it — the warfighters,” said Jim O’Donnell, L-3 Communications’ ROVER program manager. The use of time-sensitive battlefield information is the crux of the now-decade-old idea of network-centric warfare.

Information enables warfighters and analysts to make better decisions when orchestrating attacks. ROVER and other net-

centric technologies helped the military topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in about nine weeks and defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces in roughly five weeks. The use of ROVER is one of many examples that Defense Department and military officials cite when trumpeting the arrival of net-centric warfare.

“DOD [now] has experience in network-centric warfare.… People have put their hands on it, they have seen it in action,” the late Arthur Cebrowksi wrote in “The Implementation of Network-Centric Warfare.” The booklet was one of Cebrowski’s last projects as the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation before he died of cancer last year.

The Air Force’s top information technology official agrees. “We’re just beginning to taste how powerful it is,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson, chief of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer. By allowing JTACs and pilots to collaborate in real time, the ROVER is an excellent example of using information as a weapon, Peterson said.

Another example is the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), developed by Raytheon, which allows ground forces to rapidly prioritize enemy systems and forces in combat and select the best fire-support to destroy them. The $800 million software development program, under way since 1989, uses net-centric principles to exchange information between the military’s intelligence-gathering systems and its command and control systems.

“We’ve taken a big bite of the net-centric apple in AFATDS, and we like it,” said Lt. Col. Jim Chapman, the Army’s product manager of fire-support command and control.

AFATDS is a fire-support system for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. It linked soldiers and Marines when they converged on Baghdad to synchronize operations and prevent friendly fire. The system has managed the firing of more than 100,000 artillery rounds, rockets and missiles in Iraq. “Its greatest value is its

sensor-to-shooter linkage,” said Steve Bohan, Raytheon’s program manager for AFATDS.

Army National Guard soldiers used AFATDS’ command and control functions to coordinate Hurricane Katrina relief efforts through the system’s chat and instant messaging functions.

A third example of net-centric operations is the Horizontal Fusion Portfolio. DOD has pumped about $350 million into integrating disparate military, intelligence and government databases since 2003. The military is using 19 of the 32 initiatives in that portfolio to fight the war on terrorism.

“Information is a weapon, absolutely,” said Marian Cherry, manager of the military’s Horizontal Fusion Portfolio. “It makes all of your other weapons more efficient.”

One of those initiatives, Collateral Space, lets warfighters in combat and intelligence analysts mine large amounts of information on the military’s networks. They can collaborate on actions such as decommissioning roadside bombs in Iraq.

A second initiative, FusionNet Genesis, lets Army paratroopers plan and execute airborne operations in one software application. They use it to deploy equipment, order goods and prepare military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army paratroopers also used FusionNet Genesis to build a comprehensive report for military investigators who were probing why U.S. forces fired on an Italian intelligence agent and journalist last year. They compiled the report in 30 minutes based on action reports contained in the application, a process that previously took days or weeks.

“Warfighters can now pull data,” said Kenneth Bartee, president and chief executive officer of McDonald Bradley. “It’s a huge change from the past when it was pushed to them.” McDonald Bradley integrated software for the Horizontal Fusion Portfolio.

Pentagon officials and defense strategists say the success of ROVER, AFATDS, the Horizontal Fusion Portfolio and other net-centric technologies and initiatives during major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates that net-centric warfare works.

“As the force becomes more networked, the military’s tempo of operations is going up significantly,” said John Garstka, assistant director of concepts and operations at DOD’s Office of Force Transformation. “This is clearly an example of shared information. It is a very powerful tool. And information is the key enabler.”

Garstka and Cebrowski coined the phrase “network-centric warfare” in a now-famous article in the January 1998 issue of Proceedings, a monthly magazine published by the Naval Institute.

The two visionaries proposed a new way of organizing and fighting so the military could move out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. They asserted that the military could significantly increase precision, firepower, protection, situational awareness, and speed of command and operations by networking warfighters and weapon platforms. In September 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld embraced net-centric warfare as a foundational concept of DOD transformation.

“Network-centric warfare is here. It’s no longer a banner worth carrying,” said Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former researcher and professor at the Naval War College who worked for Cebrowski. Barnett is author of the books “The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century” and “Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating.”

Information proved to be a valuable weapon during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the military is still battling Taliban, Sunni and al Qaeda fighters. “Network-centric warfare has a half-life that really dissipates after major combat operations,” he said.

The next challenge is determining how information can become a powerful weapon in stability and support operations, the current phase of action in Afghanistan and Iraq. DOD officials must find ways to better use information for collaboration among warfighters, community leaders and citizens to fight insurgencies and promote economic development, Barnett said.

Creating jobs and rebuilding infrastructure in those countries is equally or more important to military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, Barnett said. By doing so, military efforts could lead to improved Afghani and Iraqi lives, which might help win their hearts — and win the war, he added. “This means building the network that is not yet built.”

The military is discussing and studying how to win stability and support operations with its allies, such as the United Kingdom, which has had similar experiences in Northern Ireland. The military started that work before operations in Iraq, Garstka said.

DOD is also studying how information can better enable current and future operations. One lesson from the war on terrorism is that some military IT leaders might be more interested in building the networks than understanding their effect on operations, he said.

“People must have a productive relationship with the people who use the technology,” Garstka said. When that relationship is lacking, technology is less effective. “This is what is slowing us down,” he said.

The military figured out how information can enable warfighters. It now needs to focus on how they are using information and on whether it is maximizing mission effectiveness, he said.

NEXT STORY: GSA issues satellite RFP

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