- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

Transformation is the newest "buzz word" in military and business circles, referring to the push to embrace new opportunities and technologies to transform an organization from "status quo" to "revolutionary."
This is happening all around us from commercial businesses to defense contractors, the name of the game is innovation and technology advancements. This is also happening far from us from Okinawa, Japan, where U.S. Navy warfighters are using a dramatic technological innovation to revolutionize the way amphibious forces fight.
But this push by warfighters to be "better, faster and cheaper" is getting pushed aside by a tough adversary.
We're all aware that significant funds are being spent to maintain our military advantage. We hear of multibillion-dollar projects regularly and we trust that the military has our best interests at heart in any decision it makes. And I believe they do when the innovation sustains the old way of fighting.
Yet, if we were to go behind the news reports and examine innovations that would disrupt the old way of fighting with a new way, we would see an organization plagued with a "that's the way we've always done it" mentality that is the bane of business today. We would also see an acquisition process that stifles free thought and crushes innovation a system that rewards "inside" business interests, promotes inefficiency, and sinks money into outdated systems and technologies simply because so much time and money has been invested in them already. A perfect example of this is a hotly debated issue network-centric combat systems.
A network-centric combat system links ships, aircraft and shore-based military operations in an "Internet-like" manner so various command centers can share data to coordinate decisions in the battle environment. This coordination results in better, faster decisions that our adversaries can't counter, thus giving our troops the upper hand in warfare environments. This sounds like a common-sense use of computer technology; and actually, the military has been using Internet technology for this purpose for years.
The first network-centric system was designed during the Soviet era to link missile-bearing ships and communications aircraft to create an air-defense network. But, this very same system the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) system is still in operation today and is more than 15 years old.
Without going into all the technical details, suffice it to say this old technology can't take advantage of modern computer innovations. It's extremely limited in its ability to be customized for the mission and is very expensive to upgrade and maintain.
Imagine having to work today with the same computer you had 15 years ago and spending money "hand over fist" to keep that relic upgraded so it will run new software applications. Imagine how slow that old machine would be. But that's the case with CEC a system grossly lacking in its ability to deliver the functionality and networkability to a variety of naval units needed to fight today's highly technical war.
So, why does the Navy insist on purchasing a system that costs more and delivers less? Because it feels it has invested so much already that it cannot change now.
Still, one might argue, the CEC system does provide some networking and data-sharing ability for missile shooting Aegis Cruisers and Destroyers. True, but the data-sharing in this fashion is "all or nothing" like drinking from a fire hose. Users can't "surf the net" and pick the information they need. They have to download everything and sort through an overwhelming amount of data to extract what they need. The system has also experienced interfacing problems with state-of-the-art radar and complex weapons systems technology. In fact, new technology has to be adapted to accommodate this old system, which just doesn't make sense especially when a new system designed for use on "all" naval units has been developed, is already available, and continues to prove itself more effective and cost efficient.
This new system, the Tactical Component Network (TCN), is built upon modern networking concepts much like the Internet. It's a collaborative tracking system in which each user has the equivalent of a web page that other users can browse. A user connects to the system and extracts only the data needed, and each data user is provided with software applications that run on standard commercial computers. With this system, users collaborate across a network and only "contributory" information is exchanged. Tracking can be tailored to meet the mission's needs and the selective data transfer minimizes the data traffic even in very large networks.
TCN has demonstrated its ability to support thousands of data tracks using low-cost radios that are already in the military's inventory. It supports linkages for modern radar and weapons systems without special interfacing and can be tailored to the mission's requirements instead of the mission being tailored to the system's abilities.
During two recent sea exercises, for instance, the entire USS ESSEX Amphibious Ready Group including minesweepers and a portable ground station ashore achieved the first worldwide collaborative network link using Iridium satellites.
Imagine viewing a screen in D.C. and observing the same tactical display of shared radar-tracking data generated by a naval force that is halfway around the world. Imagine a Navy surveillance plane providing real time pictures of a landing objective to the network that any unit regardless of size can view. That's revolutionary and that's what ESSEX amphibious force has achieved.
TCN is a low-cost, significant upgrade that would transform the current system into a network of systems that are physically and functionally independent of each other. But, despite the advantages of TCN, it could become another victim of the Navy's acquisitions bureaucracy.
With the growing concerns for stronger homeland security, the American people should demand that the military transform itself, beginning with its decisions to continue sinking money into status quo technology. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, "Outdated systems crush ideas that could save a life."

Terry C. Pierce is a captain in U.S. Navy and is deputy chief of staff for amphibious forces, 7th Fleet. He holds doctorate and master's degrees from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This piece was adapted from his award winning essay in May 2002 U.S. Naval Institute's "Proceedings."

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