U.S. military planners have long talked about their desire to harness the power of networking technology to link the Defense Department's far-flung network of reconnaissance and surveillance sensors. The idea is to grab the growing haul of sensor data, make sense of it and present it to decision-makers in a straightforward format.
This vision, known as network-centric warfare, has become the centerpiece of an ambitious Pentagon effort to transform the way the military fights wars, handles logistics and takes care of the armed forces and their families. Technology is not the problem so much as changing the hidebound culture in the Pentagon, which is fraught with interservice rivalries and midlevel program managers whose promotions often depend on preserving their program whether it is needed or not.
Planners said the transformation of the military would require more risk-taking and getting prototypes out of the labs and into the hands of soldiers who can help design new weapons and capabilities. That means more war gaming, experimentation and prototyping, said Arthur Cebrowski, a retired Navy vice admiral and former head of the Naval War College. In November, Cebrowski was tapped by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to head the DOD's new Office of Force Transformation, which has a mandate to remake the U.S. military.
"One of our products must be the broadening of our capabilities our capabilities base, our technology base and our industrial base," Cebrowski said.
The idea of transforming the military means it wants to change all aspects of its operations to reflect changes in the post-Cold War and, now, the post-Sept. 11 world. "The understanding of network-centric warfare and operations is that it flows from the fundamental changes or shifts in the processes within society itself," Cebrowski said.
One consequence is that planners will seek to take the decade-old drive to adopt commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and expand it. The networking revolution that has transformed global industry will be applied to the U.S. force structure in new ways that will affect everything from procurement rules to intelligence collection and dissemination, officials said.
Responding to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Pentagon took the unusual step of issuing a solicitation for industry concepts to fight terrorism. The "broad area announcement" provides a glimpse of the new technologies Pentagon planners are seeking to stock their tool chest of the future.
Among the technologies being sought are anti-terrorism tools like systems to locate, identify and track human faces on video images. More traditional capabilities being sought include detection and mapping of underground facilities a major effort as covert weapons programs, like terrorists, move below ground to conceal operations from spy planes and satellites and early-warning sensors needed for operations in remote areas.
Flexibility is another key to transforming the military. That means weapon development can be accelerated or broadened to add capabilities as needed. Planners call the approach "spiral development" and are using it to enhance new systems coming into the U.S. inventory, including the Global Hawk unmanned spy plane.
"When additional funding and direction become available, we can always accelerate different capabilities," including "all types of different reconnaissance missions," said Col. Wayne Johnson, director of the Air Force's Reconnaissance Systems Program Office, which manages the Global Hawk program.
Spiral development is a "superior way to do things than to forecast a need 15 to 25 years hence, freeze a design and then make it fit into the reality that emerges," Cebrowski added.
What is unclear so far is how the push to transform the military will affect the U.S. electronics industry, analysts said. Chip and systems makers did benefit from the COTS push, but military electronics has proven to be a shrinking part of many chip makers' business in recent years. "The military is not a large consumer of chips," said Risto Puhakka, an analyst with VLSI Research Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), but they will continue to use ASICs in redundant designs to meet redundancy requirements for mission-critical systems like satellites.
One area in which the industry could benefit will be the growing need for Web-based training systems that will require advanced training tools and high levels of realism. Companies like SGI, formerly Silicon Graphics Inc. (Mountain View, Calif.), have sought to tap into this growing market for advanced graphics systems.
SGI said it won a contract In late November from European manufacturer Thales to supply a mission simulator for training pilots to fly the Franco-German Tiger helicopter. The system will simultaneously process 3-D graphics, 2-D imagery and video data.
Another opportunity will be helping the military build networks that can deliver sensor and targeting data to troops in the field, thereby enabling the DOD's network-centric warfare plan. That effort has attracted a handful of companies specializing in satellite reconnaissance, image processing and geospatial reference data. Raw imagery is processed with overlays of battlefield terrain or cities so that it can be readily used by battlefield commanders. The capability is seen as increasingly important in urban warfare scenarios, where ground detail is critical.
A handful of graphics companies have already moved into this area, and the military is trying to develop networking standards so that equipment from different vendors or systems used by different services will work together.
That raises the decades-old question for the military of interoperability. For years, the U.S. and its NATO allies were unable to solve interoperability problems that plagued communications programs. Those problems would be greatly magnified if the military sought to make its vision of networked battle a reality, observers said.
"Interoperability is a major problem," Cebrowski acknowledged. "If you are not interoperable, if you're not on the net, you're not benefiting from the Information Age. You're not on the team. People do not strive to be noninteroperable, but there are forces which tend to lead people to program decisions, for example, that might result in a lack of interoperability, and those need to be addressed."
DOD announcement for research proposals
DARPA contract selection
Network-Centric Warfare Report