Defense Department Retools for a Net-Centric Future

Once, when warfighters had only to arm, assemble and attack, the strongest triumphed. Now battle supremacy rests with the computer-enabled.

For the Defense Department, information technology is providing the mission-critical dexterity essential for gathering intelligence, coordinating the movement of supplies, troops and weapons and ultimately prevailing in conflicts large or small.

Where force-support IT leaves off and battle-ready IT begins, however, is increasingly difficult to pinpoint.

Information technology is now so pervasive throughout the armed forces, some of the same techniques used to automate supply-chain management can be adapted to coordinate and monitor operational theaters or yoke together an array of high-tech combat hardware.

"Information technology is a key enabler for American military forces. They've become very dependent on IT for mobile deployment and operations in the field," said Duane Andrews, a former Defense Department chief information officer and assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence. He currently is corporate executive vice president for Science Applications International Corp. in San Diego.

"Information technology isn't just for command and control. It's [involved in] all those mission-critical and operations systems," he said. "Whether it's a bullet, a tank engine or an airplane, IT plays an important role."

According to Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services for Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., firm that specializes in public-sector information-technology market research, IT-related Defense Department investment is significantly more than the official projection of $21.5 billion for fiscal 2002.

"It doesn't tell the whole story," he said. "There's a lot of sophisticated technology throughout. While you look at the line items and see a lot of routine operating systems, intermixed with that are command and control systems. Add warfighting capability and the value of IT within DoD is multiples more ... probably closer to $80 billion."

Investment is being funneled in two primary directions: electronic conversion of paper-based legacy systems and development of rugged, network-ready software and hardware.

The goal is to make as much information as possible available to warfighters in real time, including satellite-derived intelligence, terrain identification, force concentrations, battle-damage assessments and rapid redeployment options. Only now, the experts say, are telecomputing systems maturing sufficiently to make possible these next-generation applications.

Dawn Meyerriecks is chief technology officer for the Defense Information Systems Agency, whose task it is to integrate Defense Department hardware and software while maintaining a common operating environment that will effectively sustain American military forces in the field.

According to Meyerriecks, Defense Department IT systems remain a mix of the traditional and innovative. The department's middle-of-the-road approach may not be "bleeding edge," but thus far has proved quite effective under fire.

"We look a lot like any Fortune 500 company. From a deployment standpoint, it's a pretty classical arrangement: client servers, lots of mainframes in the back room," she said. "That's not bad. These tools exist because they solve real-world problems. Web technology is just now moving to the point where it is robust and reliable enough to show up in deployable systems."

Warfighting's future appears more likely to be played out quickly, over vaster distances, and involve far more rapid and direct exchange of information between troops and commanders than at any previous time in history.

In such an environment, adaptability and nimble response will separate victor from vanquished. Development and continued exploitation of Web-enabled technologies, therefore, appear certain.

To that end, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing several Web-based, command-and-control, information-to-the-warfighter systems for the Defense Department.

One such project, the Electronic Tactical Operations Center (eTOC), aims to give the military secure, Internet-enabled capabilities that can be accessed from both traditional operating systems and battlefield-ready platforms.

The eTOC Web page displays an interactive graphical map of battlefield geography and forces, providing access to a wide range of detail concerning terrain, elevations and structures. An electronic interface allows users to obtain relevant detail on both friendly and enemy units to enhance weapons-target pairing. The system enables commanders to engage in multiple, simultaneous battlefield engagements.

Commanders also can quickly and easily customize the eTOC to obtain desired information, according to Lockheed Martin officials. The system uses the latest extensible markup language technology to provide "push" and "pull" data capabilities. Users can refine the amount and the kind of information that is "pushed" to them from the server, or they can "pull" individual pieces of data at their discretion.

Users could, for instance, narrow their view of the battlefield to only the friendly airborne units within a 10-mile radius (a push change), or they could pull more information about a given enemy unit, such as weapons specifications or even a live picture.

Unlike traditional Web-based systems, eTOC allows the user to define the amount of data transferred over the network. This allows the user to save bandwidth and enhance the performance and speed of the network connection.

Also, eTOC's point-and-click interface for selecting information makes it easy for users to access quickly the most important, relevant information without having to search through a large, cumbersome database.

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