Systems Integration Powers Military Communication Efforts

Systems Integration Powers Military Communication Efforts<@VM>Problems from the Past<@VM>Thank You, Y2K<@VM>The Internet Example<@VM>New Goals

By Edmund DeJesus

The hardest part of building military communications solutions is integration: tying together the different systems and pieces of systems from a variety of vendors so that they can talk to each other.

Whether building a single military communications system out of components from many vendors, or linking a number of separate systems together for greater access to information, everything must be linked together in order to transport information effectively from where it is gathered to where it is needed.

Integration of military communications is a natural outcome of the Pentagon's push to buy commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) products rather than government- or specialty-built solutions. The catch is that most COTS items are stand-alone products that do not interact with others right out of the box. That means integration is essential for the solution to work.

"System integrators are more important than developers these days," said Mike Yocom, business program manager and vice president of the Defense Information Systems Group of SRA International Inc., Fairfax, Va.

That view is supported by Lt. Gen. William H. Campbell, Army director of Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, who said, "We found in many cases that there was commercial technology that needed to be adapted to use effectively on the battlefield, because the demands are so different."

Ideally, every component in every system of military communications should talk to everything else. But "that is an unlikely and unrealistic goal," said Bruce Fleming, director of advanced systems engineering for the Arlington, Va.-based Federal Network Systems, a division of GTE Corp. "Such high expectations have led to a number of failures, sometimes dramatic, especially with legacy systems."

Moving information across machines ? and across connections ? is inherently difficult. Sometimes more modest expectations make greater sense, especially at the beginning of an integration program. A least-common-denominator approach, even with a low level of functionality, can serve as a base for further development and more sophisticated capabilities later.

Establishing simple communications, then improving security and overall monitoring features, may be more reasonable than an ambitious, overall program that crashes.

Not surprisingly, more and more enterprises are moving into the integration space, often addressing interoperability and standards issues. For example, the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center has a goal of joint, fully integrated command and control operations without the interoperability and compatibility problems that traditionally plague military communications that need to be fast and flexible.

While the Defense Department is implementing and, in some cases, establishing standards, that can be an elusive goal. "Ironically, different vendors may implement standards differently," said Allen Deitz, technical manager for the Defense Information Systems Group of SRA International. "Interoperability testing is a vital part of solving integration problems."

In the past, there were few standards, only choices among proprietary systems. Now standards exist, are more widely used and enable new communications strategies. Still, agencies must first decide which standards their applications will support.

"Making those choices is part of the vendor-neutral strategy," Deitz said.Dealing with legacy systems is a common issue faced by military agencies and their integrator partners. Agencies usually want to leverage and optimize what they already have. The Mitre Corp. of Bedford, Mass., for example, is integrating existing commercial technology and upgrading it with the necessary military capabilities for the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services project of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

At the same time, agencies probably want to incorporate new requirements into the existing system. Financial constraints, however, may prevent them from being able to obtain the new components needed to upgrade their systems. How do they deal with this dilemma?

"We're seeing a spiked increase in the demand for modeling and simulation of legacy systems," Fleming said.

The modeling and simulation process serves a dual purpose. First, it can show how the current system operates and how less costly upgrades can improve its suitability to the mission at hand.

Second, by projecting system requirements and demands forward in time, it can reveal the inadequacies of the current system as a base for future use. This demonstration of the current system's insufficiency can often serve as a powerful justification to move to new technologies and validate finding the budgetary wherewithal to move from the legacy system to a new system entirely.

Paradoxically, many military agencies also face a mandate to be on the cutting edge of technology, and communications integration is no exception. While the tendency is simply to throw technology at the problem, the real advantage may come from acquiring and training the right technical personnel.

These more suitably trained personnel can implement needed technology more judiciously, for the overall benefit of the mission and not for the sake of the technology itself.

"Sometimes, it's a matter of overcoming political protocol problems rather than communications protocol problems," said Vicki Looney, vice president for government affairs at GroupSystems.com of Tuscon, Ariz.

The Cold War, for example, left an unfortunate legacy of walled-away information, a tendency to regard information as power, and an inclination for government agencies to hold onto what they have. "However, there is an effort toward collaboration, especially at the Department of Defense, said Looney, whose company has helped military organizations, such as the Navy's Civil Military Operation Center aboard the Third Fleet command ship USS Coronado to improve communications and speed crisis response.

Congress also seems to be appropriating money for analytic collaborative tools that can help different agencies share information and work cooperatively with the information.

There is a new emphasis on how to prioritize demands to make decisions. This requires two cooperating strategies of integrating military communications.

First, it is necessary to propagate data from its source, and prioritize it, so that it moves vertically to the correct level in the agency. Second, it is necessary to move data horizontally to the right groups that need and can use the data.

"The challenge today is horizontal technology integration," said Victor Ferlise, deputy to the commanding general at Fort Monmouth Army Communications and Electronics Command in New Jersey.

At the same time, there should be an auditable trail of where the information has gone in order to tweak the process and speed information delivery. "This isn't hardware integration or software integration: We call this information integration," Looney said.The year 2000 challenge and its aftermath created an interesting outcome for military communication. The military's main priority during the last several years was ensuring that its systems would survive Y2K.

As a result, some vital considerations were pushed down on the list. But with Y2K a fading memory, military officials are turning their attention to other concerns.

"Security is a prime example," Fleming said. The result is a surge in interest in security concerns in military communication and a desire to upgrade security throughout and across systems. This security must be maintained between components and must, therefore, be a basic part of any integration strategy.

Another result of Y2K is that agencies are more open to spending for long-term progress, and military communications integration can benefit from that openness. During the Y2K remediation process, agencies invested in technology and saw positive results, or at least avoided the negative repercussions of Y2K glitches. Consequently, the Y2K process has served as an example for how technology spending toward a long-term goal can pay off, priming the pump for agency spending on other information technology initiatives, such as integration of military communications.

"It's a good time to be doing this," Fleming said of security and integration work.Many observers point to the Internet as an example of communications integration that is fluid and dynamic, able to adapt to change and assume new roles.

The Internet is based on open protocols, rather than on proprietary technologies. This openness leads groups and individuals to try new possibilities and achieve new solutions that were not previously considered when the Internet took root.

Because it was the military that originally initiated these Internet developments, it is only right that the military be able to reap the benefits of these communications advances and see a real technology payoff for the investment.

"The Internet separates the transport of the information from the use of the information," said Stephen Huffman, chief engineer with the Washington-based C-cubed Center of Mitre, a federally funded research and development center. "It is the applications that define the use of that information."

This type of communications model is general purpose, plus its architecture can be upgraded asynchronously.

There is a similar trend in the integration of military communications, away from specific-purpose, single-use applications and toward more general-purpose solutions. This strategy makes it easier to accommodate new components as well as to add functionality.

In the past, when defense budgets were more robust, the military services would often be leading the commercial world in technologies. "Today, you see defense more likely to be following commercial, but that's a good thing," Yocom said.

This position allows defense to pick and choose from among the large variety of solutions that the commercial environment fosters. Defense agencies also seem to have a more relaxed attitude toward what constitutes the right solution, realizing that perfection is unlikely and an 80 percent solution might be perfect. That allows them to make the most of commercially viable technologies.

"Commercial enterprises have spent a lot of money solving problems," Huffman said. "The military can take advantage of that." Huffman points to software radios as an example of the use of both commercial products and general-purpose technology to solve military communications integration problems. These programmable radios employ a variety of radio frequency transmission formats. Their powerful digital processing and signal processing integrated circuit technologies allow them to carry out many programmable functions compared to the single-function model of traditional special-purpose equipment.

"This is analogous to a general purpose computer where the software defines the function and compatibility," Huffman said. These kinds of emerging technologies are more flexible, both now and in the future.The example of the Internet also is leading to new goals in military communications that integration must support. For example, verification of transmission, or letting the sender know that the receiver got the message, is becoming more important. Equally important is authentication, or knowing that the sender of a message is the person he says he is.

Encryption is finding its way into the circuit-level but must be maintained in the handoff between components or systems. Integration strategies must recognize the "communications about communications" necessary in a modern and effective solution.

Finding the right solution for a communications integration program always involves a fundamental trade-off between easy-to-use solutions and universal solutions.

An easy-to-use solution usually will not embrace all systems under consideration. On the other hand, a universal
solution usually means most users must give up that with which they are familiar. The trick is to balance ease-of-use considerations with universality.

The goal is to encompass as many systems as possible with the technology while requiring the fewest number of users to change their procedures.

Conversely, program officials can try to change existing procedures as little as possible, while capturing as many systems in the overall solution as possible.

Finally, military officials cannot expect to frame the communications integration problem in terms of a single "gee-whiz" technology. If they could, that would obviously be the answer, and the problem would be moot.

Rather, they must expect to embrace the best aspects of several technologies. That approach ultimately will allow them to tie military communications together in a package that fits.

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