When then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen articulated his vision of a 1,000-ship navy—a vision that has been codified in two iterations of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—both supporters and critics seemed to assume that establishing interoperability among the ships of such a cooperative network would be a laborious but not particularly insurmountable task. After all, common radio frequencies and signal flags can suffice in communication between ships of vastly different technological capabilities. Yet such elemental forms of communications can “signal” a desire for cooperation and perhaps achieve a minimum of command and control, but they cannot achieve interoperability to any meaningful degree. Significant operational interoperability—the ability of ships, aircraft, or other combat units to provide close coordination in complex tactical missions—requires a linkage between sensors, combat systems, and information processing that goes far beyond the ability to “talk with each other.”
Close U.S. allies, such as NATO members, Japan, Australia, Korea, and others, have possessed the means of sharing necessarily tactical information since the early days of Link 11 and Link 16. But if the U.S. Navy intends to someday achieve a significant degree of interoperability with “nontraditional” partners—many of which have navies increasing in professionalism—it must conquer the technological gap that prevents such navies from receiving the operational data that is critical for close tactical coordination. Otherwise, cooperation remains at the level of assigning sectors and rotating individual ships to independently carry out common missions, an arrangement suitable for antipiracy patrols and humanitarian assistance perhaps, but not for situations involving potential deterrence of conflict or combat itself.
Black Box to Black Racks
One possible solution is the construction and distribution of what can be called “black racks”—self-contained, modular, and interoperable command, control, communications, computing, and information (C4I) systems that can be temporarily installed on ships that do not have the means of close operational coordination. An important feature would be that the hardware within would remain inaccessible to the user, preserving technical security.
The term “black racks” is meant to evoke the idea of the universally recognized black boxes that record aviation flight data in independently survivable and presumably tamper-proof containers. Black boxes can be installed on aircraft but remain independent of them. In contrast to the black rack concept, black boxes provide historical data that hopefully never needs to be examined. Black racks—not necessarily a single rack of equipment, but which could be installed and removed relatively easily—would provide data transmitted from outside sources of immediate use to the crew. The objective of black racks would be to provide information to the user by a means that neither requires nor permits access to system hardware, but is usable for real-time tactical cooperation. They could also be called “C4I in a box,” the boxes remaining opaque while receiving input and providing output. They would have to be wired to antennae arrays, but that too could be a temporary installation. Whether they should simply provide discrete information—such as target coordinates, warning information, attack vectors, commander’s direction, etc.—or be directly wired to a radar display or combat system could be determined based on compatibility and mission requirements.
On the surface, the construction of black racks may seem to be a technical challenge requiring a C4I acquisition program coupled with international agreements on installation and use, along with the necessary training and technical support. And obviously it would cost money, a resource that is always in short supply, and perhaps even shorter in the defense budgets of the future. However, the concept of using black racks to achieve interoperability with the platforms of selected partner navies carries with it strategic-level issues and calls into question our very understanding of—and support for—the requirements for maritime interoperability. These issues need to be identified and examined, even if the black rack concept is ultimately rejected.
Closing the Technological Gap
Outside of the technologically advanced navies that share the same operating systems—for example, Aegis and its subsystems—the technological gap between the U.S. Navy and most potential partner navies is immense and growing. Such a gap was even readily apparent among the tight allies of the Cold War; the U.S. defense budget (along with the U.S. economy overall) dwarfed that of many of its allies and it was difficult for them to keep up with the evolution in military affairs. Some opted to reduce their navies in quantity (numbers of ships and aircraft) while pacing the United States in quality (capabilities of individual platforms). Others purchased U.S. systems when their budget priorities allowed for it, accepting occasional interoperability disconnects while pursuing commonality as a general goal.
With the consolidation of Western defense industries after the Cold War, interoperability has arguably become easier to achieve, as European defense companies acquired North American subsidiaries (as their American counterparts had long done overseas) and could increase their competitive position in the U.S. defense market. Ultimately this affects alliance commonality overall, even with corporate firewalls emplaced to ensure technological security. But it is still hard for some allies to continue to keep pace, and when one looks at navies outside NATO and the U.S./NATO-Pacific alliances, the gap in capabilities is gigantic; “behemothic” might be an appropriate term to use to describe it. And it grows with every new (and unobtainable) Western acquisition program.
So what can we do about this immense and growing gap? One course of action is to simply ignore it and pretend that interoperability can be achieved “in the out-years.” If globalization does indeed deliver on its promise of “lifting all boats” in the world economy—and adding some assumptions about upcoming technological break-throughs that might make C4I more affordable or even cheap—one can simply assume that other navies will catch up someday as technology evens the playing field. Of course, one has to ignore the fact that cheaper technology rarely has a direct military application, or is no longer cheap once applied to the military environment. Crowd-sourcing via cellphone does not seem applicable in fighting ISIS or, to use a maritime example, Niger delta pirates. However, the “in the out-years” course is attractive because it is cheap; assumptions doesn’t cost money in the short term.
Another course of action is to simply accept the gap and tailor the expectation of interoperability accordingly. In other words, accept the fact that we will never achieve close interoperability with any navies other than those of our close allies. International interoperability—the cooperative strategy—would be limited to training partner navies in the basics, supporting individual systems when purchased or otherwise transferred, and providing excess defense articles—e.g., decommissioned ships and aircraft that might retain a degree of tactical interoperability because of similarity to remaining U.S. systems. When ships come together in a multinational operation, the low-interoperable ships can be assigned their own sectors and communicate via radio (or even email) if information needs to be transmitted. Such “interoperability” would certainly promote good diplomacy—and may even achieve some noteworthy results in low-intensity operations.
Of course, this would largely confine partner navies to less complex, low-intensity operations. But maybe that’s all we really want and expect. A traditional role of navies is to foster diplomatic relations. We live in an era of the “politics of feeling,” and such cooperation creates good feeling all around—including among U.S. decision-makers who decide defense policies. This is also an attractive course of action since it would not involve costs beyond those already allocated to international programs.
A Third Course
But what if we want to achieve a third course of action—to actually reduce the technological gaps that impede close operational interoperability? There are several possible sub-paths for this. We know, as a general rule, that the use of common systems achieves the highest degree of interoperability. Therefore the U.S. government can just choose to sell advanced common C4I systems to nontraditional partners as part of foreign military sales. Two immediate problems that could arise, however, are that: (1) Most non-traditional partners can’t afford them (or the training they require), and (2) technological security may become problematic. Transferring systems (basically free) as foreign military financing solves at least one of these problems, but the cost burden is also transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense (and in an indirect way, some falls on the Department of State). The second sub-path of foreign military financing could have a bit of a perception problem with Congress, if not the administration: What exactly is going to be done with these systems once they are in foreign hands? Also, the technology-security issue would remain unresolved, although we could “dumb down” the systems to protect the advanced capabilities we would not want to share.
However, there is a third sub-path—the construction and installation of the black racks and their necessary external components. The installation could occur in the following fashion: When the vessel of a partner nation joins a U.S.-, other ally-, or NATO-led coalition or is involved in a training exercise, an installation and training team brings the black racks aboard and remains to provide the necessary instruction. Depending on the capabilities of the crew, the installation and training team could be removed or remain. Training could also be provided at a temporary shoreside location prior to sortie of the vessel. All repairs or technical assistance would be provided by U.S./NATO/allied personnel.
The black racks would remain on board until the completion of the operation or exercise. In a “live” operation, the equipment would provide the necessary degree of interoperability for the partner naval or coast guard vessel (and, perhaps, eventually aircraft) so the platform could make a meaningful tactical contribution beyond being assigned an independent patrol sector or receiving the scene commander’s orders in Allied Tactical Publication voice format. After the operation or exercise is completed, the black racks would be removed, although the antenna array and other external components might be left to facilitate installation in a future operation. Instruction on the maintenance of the external components would be provided.
Costs . . .
It should not be assumed that the installation of black racks would be without some difficulties. The receiving platform would need to have the available space, power-generation requirement, and configuration to support the black racks and external components. Agreement needs to be reached between the supporting and supported partners as to where the equipment is located and by which method it is emplaced. However, the U.S. and other Western navies have considerable (some might say poorly planned) experience in “bolting down” and “wiring up” new systems on their own ships immediately prior to deploying. Installing and removing black racks under the same sort of circumstances is not unfamiliar business.
There are obviously direct costs to the nation supplying the equipment. First is the cost of designing, manufacturing and acquiring the black racks. The actual construction would seem a normal process for commercial defense industries, though naval laboratories or maintenance centers might be used if the internal components are off-the-shelf from existing inventories. Once a prototype is created, the production of additional units could be turned over to industry. Some costs might be mitigated if some internal components are removed from decommissioning ships.
Second would be the additional costs of making the black racks tamper proof. The goal is to prevent any unauthorized adjustments, or—more importantly—unauthorized transfer of technical specifications to a nation whose access to such information is normally restricted. But there also might be cryptologic components inside requiring a considerable degree of protection. This might be the gravest concern.
Logically, the degree of protection should match the degree to which the components are otherwise available in the international defense market. Making the black racks access- and tamper-proof could also prevent industrial espionage and reverse-engineering of patented or proprietary components. If methods to ensure inaccessibility can be relied on, components of greater technological sophistication (and cryptologic characteristics) that require more protection might be used. Of course, this would not prevent someone for cutting through the black rack with a cutting torch, but if this occurred it would be easily recognized and that nation would clearly no longer be on the partner list, impacting any other support they were receiving. At the same time, “destruct” mechanisms could be installed using the principle adopted by retail stores to prevent shoplifting by attaching security devices to merchandise, which are removed after purchase. Needless to say, financial costs are involved in designing such access-proofing, which would also have to prevent the downloading of controlling software. This might actually be the more difficult challenge. Software is often the more highly classified secret.
There are also the costs of training, installation teams (who might be contractors rather than naval personnel), management of the program, and other routine expenses of any international program. These are also very familiar, and the black racks program would naturally compete with other priority international programs for funding.
Are there indirect or intangible costs? Perhaps. One could argue that partner nations might be “offended” by a lack of trust by making the black racks inaccessible. But for a navy to jump from relying on tactical signaling to receiving some real-time data, being functionally interoperable and learning from advanced navies would certainly seem to be incentives to accept the equipment as offered. These navies are striving to be “full partners.” Recipient governments can be assured that inaccessibility is not directed against them, but against individuals who might seek monetary gain by selling the technical specifications.
. . . And Benefits
Increased interoperability holds the potential for substituting partner nation vessels for U.S. or allied ships, thereby allowing for greater global coverage by the more advanced fleets. It ties the partner nations closer to the overall responsibility for maintaining a peaceful global environment. It provides familiarization and training of smaller and newer navies in tactics and complex operations. It greatly enhances the global network of navies that is the basis for the 1,000-ship vision. It might even enforce the application of international law and norms of behavior; it may not solve the potential conflicts of the South China Sea, but perhaps it could contribute to deterrence since the burden would not fall exclusively on U.S. assets. To be viable, deterrence requires readily apparent capabilities that low-tech ships cannot necessarily provide.
In short, the black rack concept may prove the most cost-effective way to implement the true promise of the Cooperative Strategy. Cost effectiveness might be achieved in three ways. First, since the installations are modular in the sense that they are removable, they can be swapped among platforms and/or stored until operations require the degree of interoperability they provide. Fewer black racks would need to be procured than if each partner vessel were provided with a permanent installation, thereby keeping costs low for the entire program.
Second, they can be periodically reconfigured with new components as technical specification of Western systems advance. In other words, they could pace the gap in technology between supplying and supported navies at a fairly minimal cost to the supported. They could also control the proliferation of weapons systems that are not interoperable as smaller navies attempt to recapitalize themselves with budgets that require the least-expensive solutions to increased capabilities.
Third, they could potentially reduce the costs of forward presence by adding ships of willing regional partners directly into the deployed battle groups. Allied navies have often provided individual ships to round out deploying U.S. groups. Installing black racks might allow for groups to “pick up” nontraditional members once they reach regional operating areas. The main objective would be to achieve a level of interoperability that substitutes—at least in part—for U.S. or allied assets so that these assets can be deployed elsewhere or resources can be directed toward other key priorities. The secondary objective is to generate the familiarity and trust that can later be called upon when “things really get serious.”
In the short run, the black rack concept may seem like just another new acquisition program fighting for DOD budget dollars. But there is the potential for significant dividends in the long run as a 1,000-ship navy with truly interoperative operational capabilities can be applied to more complex missions.
To test and evaluate this concept, the Navy should try the program with a less-capable partner navy and see whether it can actually live up to its increased interoperability potential. There is precedent for selective employment—the once-prioritized international maritime-domain awareness program, for example, focused on particularly suited partners. Test and evaluation of that sort does not correspond with the current buy-before-fly approach that seems to characterize recent DOD acquisition. The initial per-unit costs will be comparatively high. But if the concept proves unworkable (after all, black racks are not a standard way we have done business before), a selective approach would prevent a much larger ineffective investment. The selected partner(s) would be determined by more than technical factors, contributing to other U.S. government political objectives. Maybe other federal departments could share part of the costs.
The ultimate objective of a black rack approach is to operationalize the Cooperative Strategy. It is a fairly simple approach to achieving useful interoperability at relatively low cost. If we are serious about leveraging the contributions of nontraditional partners, it is an approach worthy of attempt. Navies cannot become interoperable if they lack the means to do so.
Captain Tangredi served multiple tours of duty involving international naval cooperation. He is the editor of The U.S. Naval Institute on Naval Cooperation (Naval Institute Press, August 2015).