Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
February 9, 2006
[Reprinted by permission of Inside Washington Publishers. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2004, Inside Washington Publishers. For more information and exclusive news, go to: http://defense.iwpnewsstand.com. Every Tuesday and Thursday, visit the INSIDER, http://defense.iwpnewsstand.com/insider.asp, free from Inside Washington Publishers.]
Combat Commanders Make Broad Access To Intelligence A Top Priority
Recognizing the critical role the swift and accurate delivery of intelligence plays in countering 21st century threats – from terror cells to Iraqi insurgents to even a potential bird-flu pandemic – the nation’s most senior combatant commanders have put their top priority on widening access to electronic intelligence, according to one top general.
Meeting in a group called the Senior Warfighter Forum – or “SWARF” for short – the four-star generals who command the military’s nine combatant commands around the globe have decided to establish common standards that will allow uniformed personnel to share information more effectively, says Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, NE.
By all accounts, the problem the commanders are trying to fix is vast in scope.
Though the U.S. military and intelligence agencies collect reams of intelligence in Iraq, for example – in the form of surveillance photographs, voice recordings and sensor data – the Pentagon has never developed a truly functional distribution system to get information to people who need it (Inside the Pentagon, May 5, 2005, p1).
Officers and troops say they sometimes must troll for hours through dozens of classified Web sites – each unique to a different satellite or aircraft that collects intelligence – to find one piece of data they need to locate and understand a target.
With adversaries more abundant and elusive than the United States ever experienced during 40 years of the Cold War, there is a greater premium now on quickly “connecting the dots” between disparate pieces of intelligence collected by different sensors, Cartwright told ITP in a Feb. 7 interview. “Where do you find the great data and how would you start to take advantage of it?” he asked.
There is no single database – or even a common operating system between various databases – that, like Google in the commercial world, might promise the fast and reliable delivery of intelligence to a military user, officials say.
That won’t do in an era of often-fleeting opportunities to locate critical targets, illustrated most dramatically by a rogue nation’s nuclear missile on a launch pad or a terrorist leader’s brief stay at a safe house, according to U.S. military leaders.
Over the past 10 months, the problem has become so vexing and the need to fix it so great that the SWARF generals have taken it on directly – not only as the elite group’s top common priority but as its sole focus, Cartwright said.
Cartwright’s Strategic Command and U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, VA, decided to “revitalize” the SWARF – which had been largely inactive for a time – for this purpose, the general said.
These two functionally oriented commands – together responsible for a large portion of global combat operations – “got together and said, ‘If we could get all of the combatant commanders to agree on what it is we need to be able to do, the services would then have a better way of responding to it,’” Cartwright said.
“What we have started doing with them is working our way through the kinds of information that we think [offer] great leverage – things like pictures, things like signals, things like radars,” he said. “What are the standards that we’d like to be able to impose on the future systems?
And what systems today would we modify?”
The forum will next meet to discuss the topic Feb. 24 at Joint Forces Command, according to Cartwright’s spokesman.
In the near term, the top warfighters want to use so-called software “wrappers” – computer programs that act like foreign-language translators – that might allow commanders to browse seamlessly from one military intelligence database to another, according to Cartwright. The combatant commanders are seeking the help of military scientific organizations, academic institutions and the national laboratories to write wrappers to connect various systems that, to date, have been unable to tie into one another, he said.
Computer change cycles throughout the military “are not synchronized so the optimal hardware, software and tool technology, and respective program funding to support an avionics upgrade at a given point in time, are often not available,” David Corman, a Boeing official, wrote in the December 2001 issue of CrossTalk, a journal on defense software engineering published at Hill Air Force Base, UT.
“One solution to this dilemma,” he wrote, “is implementing re- engineering incrementally by inserting the latest technology in smaller, affordable steps, thereby reducing risk and deferring or reducing cost.
Software wrapper technologies hold particular promise in meeting this challenge.”
“Now, it doesn’t have to be the same standard” that all military computers must use, Cartwright told ITP. “All you’ve got to do is register [the kind of operating system in use], so that if you’re using one and I’m using [another], and we need to exchange data,” the software knows “what kind of correction to put in,” he said.
For the longer term, the SWARF is likely to urge that new systems use only selected operating systems, according to Cartwright.
“I’ll use a commercial example – Windows,” he explained. “We’re agreeing to support [Windows] 98, 2000 and XP. And if you come to me with a generation beyond XP and we [determine] it has promise and great value, we may drop [Windows] 98 off.”
The SWARF will ask the services and agencies responsible for buying warfighting and intelligence tools to publish a set of standards they will expect new systems to meet.
For instance, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, is charged with producing maps the military uses to find and attack targets. The combatant commanders may tell the agency, “NGA, you publish the range of standards that you will support. Everybody else who builds something and takes a picture has to be one of those – or has to convince [us] that the next one is on the way and we ought to embrace it,” Cartwright said.
The greatest obstacle, as it turns out, is not technology but “culture,” according to the general. Similar to a pre-9/11 phenomenon across the U.S. government that many believe thwarted intelligence-sharing among different government agencies, the military has been unable to widely distribute intelligence that is traditionally “compartmentalized” in an array of highly specialized communities, he told ITP in an interview last April.
“It’s not a technical issue any more,” he said. “It’s really more about culture and the ‘need to share’ rather than the ‘need to know.’”
As Cartwright sees it, a similar fix must be applied across a broad swath of military disciplines. The next SWARF meeting, for example, will focus on addressing military systems that use different standards for telling time and determining location, he said. If one piece of a missile defense system uses the Global Positioning System to sense time and location and another piece uses a naval standard, it may be impossible to make the whole targeting process work, according to Cartwright.
Finding ways to make intelligence more accessible rarely makes for big headlines, the general told ITP this week.
“But it’s really starting to make a difference in how we can exchange information,” he said. “We’re already starting to connect dots that heretofore we never would have connected.”
—Elaine M. Grossman