Late last year, the US military successfully completed a pilot test of a major data-sharing programme, under the auspices of the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) initiative. In this exercise, data on maritime vessels was actively shared between systems managed by the Departments of Defense (DoD), and Homeland Security and Transport, enabling more rapid analysis of a particular vessel's threat profile.
The successful test was a significant milestone for the DoD, which has long been fighting an uphill battle in an effort to reconcile the morass of standalone information systems that pepper its armed forces and related organisations.
"Trying to deal in our information environment, we have this dilemma that you just can't communicate across the stovepipes," says Cheryl Roby, deputy assistant secretary of defence for networks and information integration with the DoD.
"We haven't been able to meet the spiralling, excessive demands for information that we have in this department. So when we had three departments working in concert with each other, it brought a lot of folks realisation of the power of information sharing. For the first time, people were looking at the ability to have a common knowledge and understanding of the nation's waterways."
BARNSTORMING THE DATA SILOS
In an operational environment where data flows by the terabyte every day, the military is a very special case when it comes to IT. After decades of information policy that has been dedicated to protecting that information by segregating it from the rest of the world, the DoD's recognition that integrated systems and data sharing are essential to future operational success is significant indeed.
Even more significant, however, is the immense technical effort to facilitate that information sharing while respecting the operational information protection. Simply building moats around systems is no longer enough to ensure data security: to provide 'information assurance' – confidence in the accuracy and timeliness of data – every piece of information needs to be encrypted and tagged according to its sensitivity, as well as information about which types of people and systems
are allowed to use it.
In the long term, the effort to open up information systems reflects the growing importance of the network-centric warfare (NCW) doctrine, a decade-old concept in which combat engagements are supported by free-flowing real-time information at every level of the military.
In an NCW environment – known in other countries as network-enabled capability (NEC) for its applicability to humanitarian and other non-military engagement – that information is used not only to retrospectively report on mission progress, but to proactively support operations by seeking, analysing and delivering data wherever it's needed.
It's an ambitious plan, and one that has required a significant change on the part of various armed forces divisions. And while the vision of NCW has been long understood, the technology to make it a reality has been longer in coming.
Internal DoD technical staff, along with a multitude of subcontractors and researchers at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have been working diligently to build a robust information sharing architecture that will make NCW a reality.
ONE NETWORK TO RULE THEM ALL
A fundamental part of the NCW effort, in the US at least, has been the development of the global information grid (GiG), a collection of disparate networks whose scope extends from military analysts in the US, to soldiers in the field anywhere in the world. The GiG's eventual purpose is to provide a flexible, adaptable highway that will carry the data linking military systems, but getting it off the drawing boards has taken a gargantuan effort.
Although it had started taking shape through careful interconnections between military networks, the clearest step forward in the GiG's evolution came in late 2005, when the GiG bandwidth expansion (GiG-BE) project came to fruition. Linking 87 key military sites in the US, Europe and Pacific region, GiG-BE provides fibre-optic OC-192 connections capable of carrying up to 10G of data per second.
That's comparable to the network backbones used by many telecommunications carriers around the world, and it highlights the critical nature of GiG-BE's role in the realisation of NCW. Equally important, however, is the use of wireless communications technologies to expand the GiG from being a hardwired terrestrial network into becoming a facilitator for information-driven warfare.
Wireless links are essential for delivering information to ships, planes and – eventually – even individual squadrons and soldiers in the field.
And while the military has long had wireless voice services in the field, extending the GiG into the air by pushing large volumes of data over wireless links – reliably and in real time – has been a difficult goal.
New equipment such as the joint network node (JNN) provides a mechanism to get voice, video and data communications into the field, while airborne efforts such as the battlefield airborne communications node (BACN) and theatre battle operation net-centric environment (TBONE) support the military's combined air operations centre (CAOC) to deliver integrated data communications to air and space military field units.
While such innovations have helped move communications stations into the field, application designers must still deal with issues such as variations in signal strength, latency, coverage black spots and potential jamming and interception by hostiles.
"The guy in the field will never have enough bandwidth," says Roby. "But we only have so much wireless spectrum, and it becomes problematic not only at home, but on battlefields where we go to. We're working on issues of bandwidth and working with DISA to make recommendations where we can expand and accommodate what we're doing."
MILITARY, THE ENTERPRISE WAY
The fundamental problem facing architects of the GiG, and of the information systems that will rely on it, is the lack of predictability.
While it may be easy to exchange data between known and carefully defined systems, the increasingly casual nature of military and humanitarian missions – which may involve dozens of different military and non-government organisations (NGOs) throughout their duration – has forced once dogmatic military information architects to take some lessons from more mundane businesses.
"We have had to historically predefine the business process for people," explains Roberta Stempfley, vice director for strategic planning and information with DISA. "But that's not the world we're in today. In today's world, we don't know which NGO will be coming to the next tsunami relief effort, in which area of operations. We're really changing the way we understand things like enterprise service management and business process workflow."
Fundamental to delivering these changes is the requirement for formal definition of the military's information systems. To allow systems from different branches of the armed forces to communicate, those systems need to agree on both a structure for the data they share, and a context in which to understand that data. For example, systems need to fundamentally agree on the definition of words like 'troop', 'battalion', 'mission' or their information sharing will be misdirected.
Businesses in the financial, retail, telecommunications, healthcare and other sectors have been wrestling with similar issues for years. Their solution – to standardise the representation of data using extensible mark-up language (XML) and provide well-documented interfaces to information systems using web services standards – has become the de facto way of building enterprise systems around so-called 'service oriented architectures' (SOAs).
The DoD's NCW focused information architecture is evolving along similar lines under the auspices of a DISA programme called Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES), which is seeking to standardise the way that critical information systems talk to each other.
"The key to our transformation is being able to have SOAs so we can have information loosely coupled [with the systems that produce it]," says Roby. "The IT has evolved since we started this many years ago and wanted to be able to share information; technology has improved to the point where this is possible."
In the NCES environment, application connectors aren't only available within one single exercise, but are archived for reuse later on. For example, last year's successful MDA project saw numerous common interfaces that have been added to a widely available service catalogue; organisations wanting to share similar data with the DoD, homeland security or transport departments can just pull the interfaces from the catalogue.
In the longer term, Stempfley says the project will see the creation of a broad range of data and service registries, helping various DoD systems easily find and interact with other systems they require. "Now that you have access to a registry, you know what might be available, and you have access to services that other people might be building," she explains.
THE CHALLENGE OF OPENNESS
As efforts like the GiG and NCES provide the technical means to provide increasingly open military information services, military planners will find themselves facing a completely new range of issues posed by NCW.
Exchanging information with coalition partners will become possible, for example, but protecting that information will be equally important. Interoperability standards will need to be extended to other countries, with regional variations standardised and compensated for. The top-down information structures of traditional command and control environments will need to be revised to allow for more lateral exchange of data.
Most importantly, however, NCW will engender a cultural change, warns Giles Ebbutt, editor of the C4I Systems Yearbook with UK-based military analysis firm Jane's. "NCW is such a huge shift and such an enormous process that I'm not sure if it will ever come to fruition," he explains. "This is like reinventing the internet, but ten times more complicated.
"And it's not only a technology problem," he adds, "it's also a cultural problem. You need to have the attitude of 'who do I need to share this information with and how am I going to do it?' rather than the reverse – 'who do I reluctantly have to show this to?' – as in the past. It will take a long time before you can have this seamless transfer of data."
Efforts such as the Multilateral Interoperability Programme (MIP), which unites the US, UK, Canada and Australia in an effort to improve the exchange of command and control information, are proving essential to overcoming this resistance. Supported by ever-expanding networks such as the GiG, and facilitated by open information sharing structures like NCES, the open data sharing espoused by the NCW doctrine is looking more possible than ever.
"Much of the progress that many people have made is the fact that we now have a DoD data strategy," says Roby. "That is a valuable and remarkable product that we can now use to demonstrate to folks what's expected of them, so we can have the data be visible, accessible and understandable. The operationalising of the cyberspace environment is truly going to make us successful in joint net-centric operations."