Although sometimes depicted as a bastion of tradition, the U.S. Navy has a better track record than other military services at generating innovative ideas about future warfare. It was the Navy that first grasped the significance of the information revolution for war-fighters, and the Navy that first developed the concept of network-centric warfare — an idea later appropriated by the rest of the joint force to explain the goals of military transformation.
It isn’t hard to understand why the Navy has an affinity for net-centricity, because when you operate a forward-deployed fleet scattered around the world, it focuses the mind on the problem of staying connected. With fewer than 300 ships in the fleet and a rapidly expanding array of adversaries, the Navy can’t hope to have every asset it would like nearby when dangers arise. So it has to think creatively about how to use new technologies to get the most mileage out of whatever joint capabilities are available.
That has led the service to a vision it calls “Forcenet,” the metaphorical glue that will hold the future fleet together. The goal of Forcenet is to migrate Navy communications from a legacy, “need-to-know” mind-set to a far more open, “need-to-share” culture. The basic idea is to break down barriers to the transmission, fusion and interpretation of information so that all war-fighters with appropriate security clearances have access to the full information resources of the joint force. This openness closely resembles the operating principles of the internet.
The core of the internet is a series of technical protocols that allow users to convey packets of information across thousands of independent networks as if they were a single, unified web. The Navy would like to achieve the same feat, but it is burdened by an installed base of legacy hardware and software that was not designed to accommodate such openness. The Forcenet concept is supposed to align new technology investments so that the naval communications environment comes to resemble the internet in its flexibility and accessibility.
Ideally, all naval war-fighting systems will one day be “born open,” meaning able to exploit the full potential of internet-protocol communications. Today, only a few programs are, such as the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye radar plane, the P-8A patrol plane, and the Littoral Combat Ship (all of which are still in development). Rather than waiting for the perfect solution though, the service is funding a variety of routers, gateways and network management tools that can deliver inter-operability as soon as possible. These programs have opaque names like “Automated Digital Network System” and “Common Link Integration Processing,” but they are all about facilitating collaboration among diverse war-fighters.
The Navy could improve its prospects for making this revolution work if it took four basic steps. First, it needs to do a better job of explaining its networking goals to Congress, so that normal people can grasp what it is trying to achieve. Second, it needs to rebuild the ranks of Navy engineers capable of effectively managing the contractors working on new technology. Third, it needs to coordinate with other services on establishing stable standards for building a truly joint and interoperable network. Finally, it needs to avoid stop-and-start funding practices for key programs, because delays in one program ripple across other efforts. Progress is being made, but it could come faster.
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