US forces must leverage information technology and innovative network-centric concepts of operations to develop increasingly capable joint forces. New information and communications technologies hold promise for networking highly distributed joint and multinational forces…
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld64
Although recent operational experience suggests that NCW is a viable concept for transforming the Army, the full potential has not been realized and significant impediments to implementing it remain. Not all of the NCW experiences were ideal and the “situational awareness picture was not available to everyone”65 who needed it. Similarly, some senior leaders contend that “network-centric projects are still not ready for battle.”66
Applying the concept of NCW relies on the infusion of new capabilities and technologies, and corresponding changes in tactics, techniques and procedures that have not fully matured. This section summarizes some of impediments to achieving the vision of NCW and considers the implications this concept has on Army force transformation.
There are several known and emerging67 impediments to achieving the potential benefits of NCW and realizing enhanced capabilities through networking the force.68 For brevity, discussion of impediments is limited to some technical and resource-oriented challenges that may inhibit progress in applying NCW concepts throughout the Army. These impediments include the lack of robust network connectivity and interoperability, information security issues, and competition for resources to fund C4ISR investments in a fiscally constrained force.
The greatest impediment to achieving NCW is that the Army lacks the robust network connectivity and interoperability necessary to fully implement it. By design, NCW requires a robust network with common user access throughout a fluid battle space. Even the most avid NCW enthusiasts submit that “the information infrastructure will not be ready to support network-centric operations.” 69 They content that “we are becoming more dependent on a fragile and vulnerable infrastructure”70 and argue that there is a “disconnect between the future concepts being developed and planned reality of the infrastructure in the same time frame.”71
The Army is heavily reliant on Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) and other primarily terrestrial based communications systems to support its tactical networks in theater. Initially fielded in the late 1980’s, MSE does not have the mobility required or bandwidth available to support the pace of operations envisioned in a NCW environment.72 As offered by Colonel Tom Cole from the U.S. Army Communications Electronic Command (CECOM), “right now, we have to stop, put a stake in the ground and put an antenna up, which slows our capability.”73
Shortfalls in terrestrial based systems generate increased demand for satellite communications (SATCOM) to make up the difference in bandwidth requirements. The relative demand for space-based bandwidth during OEF and OIF were over 50 times more than used during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990’s.74 By 2020, the anticipated bandwidth demand may exceed current requirements by more than 600 percent.75 Although the military satellite community is working to meet this growing demand through organic, military SATCOM (MILSATCOM), it is unlikely that the military will be able to “deliver a functional worldwide system until sometime in the second decade of this century.”76 As a result, the Army must rely on commercial satellites that may not be available when needed to support bandwidth requirements during combat operations.
The lack of robust network connectivity has led to increased investments and development of the GIG and new tactical communications systems, including the Warrior Information Network – Tactical (WIN-T) and the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).77 Some defense analysts predict that major increases in DoD C4ISR-related investments, combined with anticipated progress in the private sector, will eliminate bandwidth constraints “in about a decade.”78 Although these predictions are somewhat optimistic, it is clear that greater C4ISR investments and private sector advances will resolve some current shortfalls. However, delays in technology development timelines will frustrate the process.
The second major impediment is the inability to address network security issues generated by increased reliance on a networked C4ISR infrastructure. The envisioned GIG and C4ISR infrastructure that connects tactical, operational and strategic nodes will only be as secure as its weakest link. As such, the Army must contend with a new set of network security issues in order to maintain a secure and reliable network.
Although the vast majority of network nodes in the envisioned C4ISR infrastructure will reside inside a relatively secure network environment, they may not be completely immune to internal or external actors who seek to disrupt operations, corrupt data, steal sensitive information, deny access or exploit network vulnerabilities.79 For example, a rapidly propagating computer virus intentionally or unintentionally introduced into the C4ISR infrastructure may have devastating results. Additionally, the connection of relatively secure tactical C4ISR nodes to potentially less secure domestically based nodes required to create the end-to-end architecture of the GIG may provide a point of entry for hostile actors. As such, security concerns may limit the application and use of the infrastructure necessary to support NCW requirements.
The final impediment is the competition for resources to fund the investments required to build and maintain a robust C4ISR infrastructure. In a resource constrained force, greater C4ISR investments will generate “reduced investments in traditional platforms.”80 As such, weapon systems currently under development that do not integrate well into the conceptual C4ISR framework will receive “less attention, less funding, and may sometimes be cancelled.”81 The successful application of NCW concepts during OIF and OEF has already led DoD to consider a shift of over $1 billion from current programs to C4ISR during fiscal years (FY) 05 to FY 09.82 It is probable that this shift of resources will increase over time.
Some contend that during the Rumsfeld era, “all new weapon systems will be evaluated primarily on the degree to which they further the…ability to conduct NCW.”83 This is based on the belief that NCW investments will generate a “greater influence…on total battlefield performance, whereas development of traditional platforms (in measures of fire-power, speed and range) is likely to create less operational impact.”84 Although this assertion has some merit, there is considerable risk in overestimating the impact of C4ISR investments over more traditional platforms. Additionally, if the advocates and system developers get it wrong, it can lead to a transformed force that is “completely unbalanced”85 in required capabilities.
Finally, although investment strategies may support a networked force within the next 10 to 15 years, resource constraints will delay full employment throughout the Army and the joint force for a much longer period. According to Colonel Toomey, the “current situation of digital haves and have-nots is creating a force that cannot communicate with itself.”86 He contends that the “risk of fratricide to unseen units makes an already challenging force protection and survivability problem on a complex and confusing battle field even more acute.”87 As experienced during OEF and OIF,88 we will experience interoperability issues and gaps in common situational understanding both internal to the Army and throughout the joint force.