Interoperability: More Important Than Ever

By William D. Smith

There is considerable optimism regarding network-centric warfare. If it proves to be as effective as currently planned—if it can be satisfactorily demonstrated at sea—commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, with the necessary software, could be the essential connectivity between U.S. naval forces and the allies. Admiral Archie Clemins, in discussing his visionary initiative, Information Technology in the 21st Century (see May 1997 Proceedings , pp. 51-54), has estimated that 80% of the cost of this new capability will be in the development and installation of the interconnecting links. If this installation covers all overseas facilities where U.S. ships operate, we should be able to add allied ships to U.S. networks at minimal cost.

What capabilities should the allied ships have? This is a complex and somewhat controversial question, but at minimum they should be full participants in the cooperative engagement capability (CEC) and have a full tactical picture. Participation in CEC is essential not just for the survival of the platform but also because of what each platform adds to the strength of the network itself. Robert M. Metcalfe, the inventor of the ethernet (forerunner of the internet), has postulated that the power (or value) of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes (participants) in the network. This is a forceful argument for including every allied ship fully in the data interchange, as well as for making them data providers.

Important to the success of such a data exchange are the correct radio and encryption links. Fortunately, transmitters and receivers with NATO operating standards will be COTS equipment in U.S. Navy suites, making commonality easier and more affordable for everyone. Achieving broad band, high data rate, interoperable links remains the most pressing challenge.

Giving each allied ship the full tactical picture involves more than the engineering aspect, although that is very important. The value of the full tactical picture lies in the capability of the operator to access the backup files and other data bases to maximize the quality of the information displayed. Because the heart of network-centric warfare is the availability of diverse and extensive data bases and their management, the ability to access this information is the real leverage and power of the system.

If our allies are going to be full participants, they will need full access to this data, which raises questions of security classification and information sensitivity. The solution is to be found in policy decisions that resolve these hindrances rather than in creating new protocols or separate area networks for strictly allied use. This area has been given little forward-looking focus. Traditionally, the solution has been to react to the crises with quick fixes—as has been done in Bosnia—rather than to include allies in the development phase.

The rhetoric of national policy is to include our allies in any difficult crisis. The Navy should develop a sustained focus on the best and most efficient way to move from rhetoric to reality, so we can benefit from our allies' considerable capabilities. Establishing a working group between the Navy's Space, Information Warfare, Command and Control Directorate (N6) and the Navy's International Program Office was a commendable first step, but that alone is not sufficient. More needs to be done to engage the allies, including an upgrade of the testing, implementation, and training aspects of required interoperability. I think we will find the allies ready and willing to move down this path with us, as long as they are full partners and active participants in the process.

Admiral Smith , a 1955 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was the U.S. Representative to NATO while on active duty.


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