Network-Centric warfare comes of age: A WT Special Report

Maturing technologies and generous funding are spawning a host of new procurement programs

Special report on new defense opportunities

Until recently, the transition to netcentricity was slowed by the conservative approach of integrators, who offered incremental upgrades when the Pentagon was looking for radical ideas. "The thought leadership was with the product vendors, not with the integrators," said John Garstka of the Office of Force Transformation.

Henrik G. de Gyor

In July, MTC Technologies Corp. began work on a first-of-its-kind project that essentially will turn Air Force refueling aircraft into flying data routers.

With the help of Northrop Grumman Corp. and ARINC Inc., MTC is equipping KC-135 aerial refuelers with routers, antennas and other equipment so the aircraft can transmit battlespace information among different units. The idea is to build a mobile network that can be quickly deployed anywhere in the world, especially in hostile territories.

"Where you can't get a ground station established quickly, you need some other platform that can handle communications. A refueling aircraft is generally stationary over a given area, so they make very good platforms," said Michael Solley, chief executive officer of MTC Technologies Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of MTC Technologies Inc., Dayton, Ohio.

Until very recently, this program couldn't have been done, Solley said. Some of the airborne tactical datalink technology wasn't as reliable as the military requires. And although there was interest in these types of projects among the brass, those closer to the programs were still grappling with the idea of mobile networking, so the funding wasn't in place.

"At the moment, there are more dollars to do some of these things, and also I think people have realized the importance of it these days, more so than in the past," Solley said.

Although the concept of network-centric warfare has been around for more than a decade, only recently has it begun playing out in full force on the procurement level, such as outfitting KC-135 aircraft with router capabilities.

But now integrators are seeing more large-scale contracts to upgrade systems and create new platforms that share battlefield information and better use the data on hand.

"We're trying to get away from a platform-centric view to a network-centric view," said Roy Mabry, senior staff of the Architecture and Interoperability Directorate at the Defense Department. Mabry, whose office is working to develop a common architecture for the Pentagon, said the goal is to make information available to those who need it and can use it.

The success of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan also has underscored the benefits of network-centric warfare, analysts said. Many of the command and control decisions for the operation do not take place in Afghanistan, but in Tampa, Fla., at the U.S. Central Command, the joint-service headquarters for the U.S. military presence throughout the Middle East, Asia and Northeast Africa.

New networking technology brings to Afghanistan greater precision and speed in calling in air strikes from the ground through the use of global positioning system-enhanced communications.

"Nowadays, you can have a handful of special forces on the ground calling air strikes with a lot more accuracy. They've been trying to do this since the Battle of Normandy in 1944," said Mark Burgess, an analyst for the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit military research organization.

At the same time, fighter aircraft are being assigned duties much more dynamically, giving the command centers "quantum leaps in agility" to respond to changing threats, said retired Rear Adm. Steve Baker, a senior fellow at CDI. For Afghanistan operations, 80 percent of air fighter missions aren't assigned until after the planes have departed, something that was "unthinkable a few years ago," Baker said.

The Pentagon now spends about $11.3 billion annually on advanced command and control systems, according to Frost & Sullivan Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., research firm. Although the firm predicts this spending will be flat through 2007, it also forecasts that additional command and control-related funding will be diverted from lower priority programs and from appropriations to fight terrorism in the years to come.

Under procurements planned to begin early next year, the services will issue requests for proposals for a variety of new, big-ticket command and control systems, including a $270 million Army program to develop and deploy software for its portion of the Global Command and Control System.

"Network-centric warfare has been kind of a buzzword in the past, but in the last year, the services have really signed on," Baker said.

STARTING SLOWLY

Selling the vision of network-centric warfare to the large integrators was not an easy job, said John Garstka, assistant director for operational concepts for the Secretary of Defense's Office of Force Transformation. The office, directed by retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, was commissioned in 2001 to guide the services through transformation into modern fighting forces.

In 1998, Garstka, along with David Alberts and Frederick Stein, co-authored, "Network Centric Warfare," a book commissioned by the Assistant Secretary of Defense's Command and Control Research Program. The book defined network-centric warfare, then a new term, as the ability for U.S. armed services and allies to create a "shared battlespace awareness" in which information collected by different units and intelligence sources can be gathered and analyzed to make intelligent battle decisions.

By connecting different fighting units, the aggregated information that results can provide a more complete picture for both the commander overseeing a battle and the soldiers in the field, the authors wrote. To borrow a phrase from business, it allows the military to fight faster, cheaper, better.

Battlefield networks allow commanders and intelligence analysts to plan virtually rather than in person. Network operations decrease the need to move as many people to the field, with more operations carried out remotely. Wireless data networks feed fighter pilots more crucial awareness of their targets and hostile surroundings.

However, moving this vision from the higher ranks to the unit level, and then to the integrators who would be tasked with tying together the disparate command and control systems, proved to be a slow process, Garstka said.

Integrators who were incumbents on programs -- more than 95 percent, he estimated -- were thinking conservatively. They were focused on winning recompeted contracts by simply meeting the baseline requirements. However, the military, looking at the gains the business world was achieving through smarter use of computer networking, wanted radically transformative ideas.

Consequently, when F. Whitten Peters, then-secretary of the Air Force, visited Silicon Valley in April 2000 to discuss networking technology, he went to the product vendors rather than the integrators, Garstka said. After all, it was companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. that honed the Internet and the networking technologies being used to great benefit by the private sector.

Dennis McLain, manager of defense and intelligence operations for the federal operation at Sun, one of the companies Peters called on, said the visit "could be seen as an end run around the integrators."

"The thought leadership was with the vendors, not with the integrators" Garstka said.

PICKING UP SPEED

But if integrators were slow to sign on to network-centricity, they have clearly gotten the message and are building systems and prototypes that fit the bill.

"The warfighters need information when they need it, not beforehand and not too late. They need it exactly when they need it. That is the challenge," said Christine Reynolds, vice president of the Defense Mission Systems unit of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s information technology division.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, according to Frost & Sullivan, has 16 percent of the contractor market for command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. It trails only Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., which has captured 17.9 percent of that market.

Northrop Grumman has participated in projects such as the Joint Mission Planning System, an Air Force and Navy-funded mission-planning system to be used by Joint Strike Fighter aircraft as a ground base.

"You see a lot of the integration of knowledge management, presenting the right information to the warfighter at the right time," said David Weddel, technical director for the systems engineering group of Anteon International Corp., Fairfax, Va. Anteon is supporting the Navy's Little Creek, Va.-based Network Warfare Command, which was established to support network warfighting capability.

Battlefield awareness has been a growth area for General Dynamics Corp., Falls Church, Va., as well. In August 2000, it was awarded a $91 million, four-year contract to build a system for the Navy's Area Air Defense Commander program that would give strategic planners real-time views of a theater of conflict.

"In the past, it could take days, even weeks to pull together a single air defense plan. It was done by a large staff using tables, manuals, charts and maps," said Bill Evans, General Dynamics' program manager for the project. "Now a lot of sorting work is done by the system, and commanders get instantaneous situational awareness."

A PUSH FROM REFORM

Enthused by the results of a prototype, the Navy redirected General Dynamics into production mode to deliver four units by the end of the 2003 and four by 2004, said Evans.

The government's move toward capabilities-based contracting has helped cement a network-centric vision among the contractors. Under this philosophy, a government agency does not specify the products or solutions that contractors must provide, but instead asks contractors to devise solutions aimed at giving the agency precise capabilities.

Although capabilities-based contracting is happening across all federal agencies, it is particularly welcome in the Pentagon's network-centric work, because it gives integrators the freedom needed to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of networking technology.

One major contract where this shift occurred has been the Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, a mobile, mostly wireless network for soldiers and combat vehicles to seamlessly connect into the Army's networks from anywhere. In August, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin were chosen for the first phase of this job, which has an estimated value up to $6.6 billion.

"We're moving from the old build-to-spec requirements to one where the integrator takes the operational vision and defines a system around the requirements," said Jim Quinn, program manager for Lockheed Martin's Win-T team.

Earlier this year, the service delayed the release of the RFP for two months to ensure that its procurement

strategy aligned with other Army IT programs. When the RFP did appear in April, integrators found it had been redrafted to allow the winning teams far more freedom in how to build the network.


"It enables us to step back and assess more advanced technologies that would be coming into play in the future," said General Dynamics' Vice President Larry Rhue.

Capability-based contracting also ensures that smaller, more specialized players get a seat at the table.

Ellen Minderman, vice president of the Dulles operations for FGM Inc., Dulles, Va., said she sees a trend in network-centric work of using large indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts that allow agencies to competitively issue task orders to preselected teams when they need a certain capability, such as weather planning or mission planning.

"A task order on an existing contract can happen much quicker than could be done with a new contract," Minderman said.

In April, the company won a place on the $1 billion DISA Next Generation Engineering contract, which will provide support on the engineering and interoperability of DISA's core mission areas.

"From our view as a small business, [capability contracting] is a gold mine, because we can do those small capabilities very well," Minderman said. "Can we build a $100 million system? No. Can we build the $2 million capability? Absolutely." *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

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