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Government Computer News June 19, 2006

Network science project

Research council finds net-centricity's payoff is in the long term

By David C. Walsh

Transforming the Defense Department into an integrated, globally networked organization will cost between $30 billion and $50 billion and be as challenging as the Manhattan Project. And it is a long way from becoming a reality.

Those are two key findings of Network Science 2006, a report ordered by John Parmentola, the Army’s director of research and laboratory management. Prepared by the National Research Council’s Committee on Network Science for Future Army Applications, the report found that contemporary military success “depends on the development of a coherent system of interacting networks using a rapidly evolving enabling technology.”

The goal is linking the key elements of network transformation—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR).

Today, the report said, networks are not being quickly and efficiently linked to ground and air elements—such as artillery locating systems, all-weather assets, and persistent surveillance and dissemination systems.

While “C4ISR systems and technologies provide a manifold improvement in combat capabilities, they provide a manifold problem of complexity,” according to the report.

Some of those challenges include:

  • Incompatibility of newer C4ISR components with rapidly aging legacy systems
  • Ever-evolving, increasingly complicated technology and its impact on humans
  • Shortage of radio frequency bandwidth for net-centric operations.

John Duke, an NRC member and senior research fellow, said a networked military cannot become reality without massive rethinking of the warfare-operations nexus.

He said the committee’s brief was “determining the substance of what might be called ‘network science’ ” and asking how the Army will use it to “improve transformation and large-scale procurements like the Future Combat System.”

But this will not be easy, as the Army found out during emergency-evacuation and terrorist-tracking test scenarios. The service learned that commanders lacked information about a fast-moving battlespace.

“Getting autonomous action down to the lowest possible level—that’s a very important principle of network behavior,”

Duke said. “But the way military command and control systems work is that those at very high levels try to control the detailed behavior down at the low levels.

And that kind of system just does not work for these [autonomous networking] tasks, where you have to learn how to do them as you do them.”

But the overarching challenge is that networked projects, “based on existing technology rather than on new results from network research,” have limited-scale, short-term impact, Duke said.

Examples of successful local-scale technologies include Joint Network Nodes, which connects services to the military’s Global Information Grid, and Blue Force Tracker, which shows ground forces their whereabouts in the battlespace via elaborate computer screen displays.

When it comes to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, however, “network science does not impact what you’ve got out there right now; it impacts major changes in how you do business, that impact whether you win over the longer haul,” Duke said.

Getting value

For now, the NRC report proposes modest Army spending of about $10 million annually, which would provide “good value” for basic research other services could draw from.

John Pike, head of globalsecurity.org of Washington, said he was unimpressed with the report’s admission that such research had no immediate impact.

“It’s really hard to see how the Army could throw money into this field on the basis of this unresounding endorsement,” Pike said.

Some useful questions have been raised, he said, but “whatever network science is doing, it does not appear to be generating propositions that the Army can use operationally. I would say this dog won’t hunt.”

Duke acknowledged that no one knows the principles needed to make pieces of the Future Combat System work reliably and securely in a battlefield. Nevertheless, a modestly funded program “gives you some options for the future,” with tracking demonstrations, computer modeling, simulations and so forth, he said.

“You’ve got to start thinking about [netcentricity] as a ‘Manhattan Project’ where you just absolutely insist that you get this design done at a global level from the beginning and develop the science. You could not have made nuclear weapons the way we are now designing our network systems; they would never have worked,” Duke said.

“We were really trying to understand whether we knew how to design [networked] systems of enormous complexity— and the answer was, we don’t. You can do things on little systems that work just fine, but when you try to scale them up to a larger unit like a brigade or an army, they don’t work anymore. The people planning and designing large-scale things need to know that,” he added.

Copyright 2006, Post-Newsweek Media, Inc.